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Siân Halcrow

Siân Ellen Halcrow is a Senior Lecturer in Biological Anthropology in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago.

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What do you do on an average work day?
When I am in New Zealand my average work day consists of a mixture of research, teaching and administration. My research expertise is in bioarchaeology, the study of human remains from archaeological contexts. I manage the bioarchaeological research at several archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, and have a new project working on skeletal collections from the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, famous archaeologically for the earliest form of artifical mummification in the world. This new project is funded by my latest Marsden Grant Transitions in prehistory: subsistence and health change in northern Chile in collaboration with colleagues at Durham University and the University of Tarapaca, Chile.

Through these projects I supervise several postgraduate research students (4th year honours, Masters, and PhD candidates), as well as Postdoctoral researchers on my team. I spend a considerable amount of time developing research projects and applying for competitive internal and external funding.

I also maintain a full teaching load contributing to Biological Anthropology, Anatomy, Physical Education, and Forensic papers. My teaching involves lecturing and taking practical lab sessions. We are very privileged to have a unique and substantial human anatomy teaching resource in our Department with an extensive Museum collection and human material from our Body Bequest system. I really enjoy my time spent with students and feel that I am learning through assisting with their learning.

I undertake archaeological fieldwork overseas, including the excavation of prehistoric human skeletal remains and the analyses of these remains for signs of physiological stress and pathology. The analyses of stress and health in past populations is important for addressing questions of human adaptation and change with environmental changes during major transitions, such as the development of agriculture.

I also spend part of my time serving on research and teaching committees within my University and nationally. I believe in advocating for women and early career researchers in academia and have held various related service positions, such as President of the Otago Branch of the New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women and the chair of the University of Otago O-zone Early Career Research Committee.  

What did you study at school? And after high school?
At school I was given the somewhat ill-informed advice to take only maths and science subjects, as I was “too bright” to study arts subjects, so I took Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Maths with Statistics, Maths with Calculus, and English. However, once at University I had the opportunity to continue to take my biological science papers, but also delve into social science papers including archaeology, gender studies, and social anthropology. For my PhD this put me in excellent stead to understand the social theories underlying my research and also provided me with the tools to approach literature in a critical and analytical manner, which is central to any postgraduate research.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, my study is directly related to what I do now. I started my degree at Auckland University in Biology and Anthropology and then transferred to the University of Otago in my third year, where I completed a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in Anthropology, with my research dissertation on a topic in Biological Anthropology. I became ‘hooked’ on bioarchaeology after experiencing the hands-on lab work with human skeletal remains. After my honours year I embarked on a PhD in Biological Anthropology in the same research group at Otago. Although I had the opportunity to apply for scholarships to study overseas I chose to stay at the Department because of its Southeast Asian regional focus and my very supportive supervisor.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Find your passions. Although careful planning of University degrees are necessary, there are options for flexibility in most degree structures that will allow you to find your true interests. Flexibility and changing tack within tertiary education is particularly applicable for developing cross-disciplinary research expertise such as in Biological Anthropology and many other fields.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
I’m naturally an introvert, so don’t necessarily like self promotion. Despite my successes in obtaining major external grants, I think the highlights for me are when I support my team to succeed with obtaining their own funding, awards and publications.

Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
To understand our future we need to understand where we have come from. In my group we are looking at seminal transitions in human society that have major repercussions on society today and in the future. For example, agricultural development ultimately led to the poor living conditions, and malnutrition and disease, for nearly half the world’s population today. Through the scientific assessment of past human health changes we can directly test this turning point in human history.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Women are underrepresented in STEM. To change this we must destabilise the stereotypes of scientists being predominantly white men, encourage girls at school to engage in science through mentorship and scholarships, and make Universities and other institutions aware of the burdens that women face in science.

I write about some of these issues for women in science in my blog:
My Work with Babies Today and in Prehistory

Sian doing lab work in Chile

Siân Ellen Halcrow is a Senior Lecturer in Biological Anthropology in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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