Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Our Man at the Smithsonian

60 Seconds with Matt Tocheri

Frances Harding
Published April 14, 2011

Matt Tocheri (HBA’99) studied anthropology at Lakehead and is now working as a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His work on the wrist of a tiny hominin found on the island of Flores, Indonesia (Homo floresiensis), nicknamed “Hobbit” received considerable attention worldwide after it was published in Science Magazine in September 2007. In this interview he reflects on the joys and challenges of his profession. 

How did you land your job as a Database Specialist and Physical Anthropologist at The Smithsonian Institution?

In January 2005, I was a doctoral student in Anthropology at Arizona State University (ASU) and I decided to apply to the Smithsonian Fellowship Program for a one-year fellowship.  A Smithsonian pre-doctoral fellowship is designed to help doctoral students complete their dissertation research while using museum collections and resources available at the Smithsonian.  In my case, I needed access to the large collections of human and nonhuman primate bones housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C.  Luckily for me, my application was successful and in June 2005 my dad flew from Thunder Bay to Arizona and together we drove across the USA to D.C. with all of my stuff and research equipment in tow.  My advisor at the NMNH was Dr. Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program (humanorigins.si.edu), and he helped me get settled in at the museum quickly. I was then able to begin focusing on my dissertation research, which involved studying hand and wrist anatomy in living and fossil humans and great apes.  Each day, I would walk up and down the hallways of the museum carrying trays of human and great ape bones back and forth to my small office for study.  It was a fantastic experience and as my Smithsonian fellowship was drawing to a close, Rick graciously asked me if I was willing to stay on as a fellow within the Human Origins Program.  I stayed on as a predoctoral fellow and when I defended my dissertation and graduated from ASU the following year, I became a postdoctoral fellow.  I carried on with my research and then, in September 2007, I became the Database Manager for the Human Origins Program Database, a project that Rick had started a few years previously as part of a National Science Foundation grant.    

What is the most exciting project you have worked on to date?

I can't think of any part of my job that is not exciting.  Since I'm able to choose the kinds of research projects that I get involved in, I tend to pick ones that are of interest to me.  For example, I just returned from a research trip to Rwanda as part of my continuing work on gorilla evolution and functional morphology.

Growing up in Thunder Bay, I never thought much about gorillas and didn't realize that there are at least three different kinds of gorilla still living today: the western gorilla in west central Africa, the grauer gorilla in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the mountain gorilla in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  My work focuses on understanding how the anatomy and behaviours that distinguish these gorillas from one another are related to ecological differences in their habitats and their recent evolutionary histories.  For example, mountain gorillas live in high-altitude habitats where trees are smaller and there are less fruits in comparison to the low-altitude habitats of western gorillas.  When we compare the feet of these gorillas, we can see that western gorillas have anatomy more adapted for climbing and grasping whereas mountain gorillas have anatomy more adapted to using the foot as a propulsive lever while walking on the ground. 

These differences in anatomy tell us that from the time these two gorilla species diverged from each other approximately one million years ago, they have been living in very different habitats. I get excited about how these small details hidden within the anatomy of animals can tell us important aspects of where they came from and how the processes of natural selection and genetic drift have influenced their evolution. 

Another good example of this would be my work on the hand and foot anatomy of Homo floresiensis, a different species of human that appears to have gone extinct around 17,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores.  Standing at only one metre tall and with the brain the size of a modern chimpanzee, these humans likely represent descendants of early humans that reached the island one million years ago − that's around 800,000 years before our own species, Homo sapiens, first appears in the African fossil record.

Although they are very closely related to us, there are many aspects of their anatomy that are different from us and more closely resemble that of earlier species of humans and great apes (our closest living relatives).  This is because many features of our anatomy evolved after our respective lineages diverged.  The wrist of Homo floresiensis lacks distinctive anatomical changes that characterize the wrists of modern humans and Neandertals.  This information tells us that we are more closely related to Neandertals than we are to Homo floresiensis and that these changes in the wrist most likely evolved sometime after the ancestors of the Homo floresiensis first became isolated on Flores.   

What advantage did studying at Lakehead give you in pursuing your career?

Lakehead had many advantages for me.  Having grown up in Thunder Bay, many of my family members, including my mom and dad, graduated from Lakehead.  So it was a natural choice for me as well.  Although I certainly wasn't planning on becoming an anthropologist, my mom suggested I try taking some anthropology classes as that was one of her majors.  The anthropology faculty was fantastic and their classes fascinated me.  I can remember wanting to sign up for as many anthropology classes as I could after taking my first class.  Dr. El Molto was the biological anthropologist at Lakehead at that time, and he became instrumental in nurturing my interest in skeletal anatomy.  I worked with El as his research assistant for several years and traveled to Egypt with him to conduct fieldwork.  Having those kinds of experiences as an undergraduate was an incredible opportunity and it had a big influence on my decision to pursue graduate work and a career in anthropology.

What advice would you give to a young anthropology graduate starting out?

Anthropology is an excellent major for an undergraduate as it exposes them to a wide array of ideas and challenges. As such, it provides well-rounded training that can be applied to many jobs, most of which may have nothing to do with research or anthropology.  However, if you are interested in a career in anthropology, then you will need to go to graduate school to continue your education.  Most jobs in anthropology or related fields require at least a master's degree, if not a PhD.  Careers can range from conservation to consulting to forensics to academics, and the list goes on.  My general advice is to take as many classes as you can and find what interests you the most. Then study and work as hard as you can.  Try to get involved in research projects and learn the process involved in carrying out a study and submitting it for publication. 

What characteristics do you need to work as a scientist in a field where new evidence is continually appearing and where your theories are constantly being challenged?

Science is a process and new evidence and challenges to previous ideas are what makes that process work.  Some scientific debates are more intense than others but in essence they are all the same; at the end of the day the ideas that win are those with more compelling evidence supporting them, at least at a given point in time.  As new evidence emerges, it may clarify previous ideas or it may suggest an alternative explanation is more appropriate.  As a scientist, you need to develop thick skin because you should expect others to challenge your ideas, because that is what makes the scientific process work. 

Studies of human evolution often attract media attention and it is unfortunate that there is a tendency to sensationalize aspects of the research that are simply untrue and not justified.  For example, you may often read about a new study or new fossil discovery that "completely changes everything we knew about human evolution." Invariably, this kind of story actually means that the study or discovery has helped to shed new light on a particular aspect of the human evolutionary story and a majority of what we knew before is still the same. 

For example, the discovery in 2003 of Homo floresiensis underscored how little we currently know about human evolution in Asia prior to the evolution of our own species in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago; it opened up many exciting new questions regarding the timing and patterns of early human dispersal across the Old World during the past two million years.  It certainly did not re-write everything we thought we knew about human evolution as was often written in the press.  

Why is physical anthropology important? Why should we care about human origins and evolution?

There are many branches of science that may at first seem irrelevant or unnecessary to the daily lives of people around the world.  However, the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge is a key characteristic of what it means to be human. 

We are so good at sharing and transferring knowledge that we now occupy every land mass on the planet. We have sent individuals to the moon and outer space, and yet countless forms of life on this planet are at risk of extinction because of our continuous expansion into their habitats. 

On a basic level, studies of human evolution fulfill our intellectual curiosity about where we as a species came from, but the continual acquisition of knowledge about our evolutionary history also helps us to better understand the world and our place in it.  For example, it helps us find cures for diseases, helps us better manage the environment, and helps us make informed decisions for an array of issues facing various human societies today.  If we don't fully understand or appreciate where we came from, how can we know where to go? 

What do you like to do when you are not working?

I derive such tremendous satisfaction from my work that I pretty much want to do it all the time.  It doesn't feel like “work” to me. I just feel lucky that I can wake up every morning and get to do something that I love.  When I was a teenager in Thunder Bay, I was an avid snooker player and I would wake up in the morning and I couldn't wait for the pool hall to open.  There was always a sense of excitement in the air about what might happen that day and I couldn't wait to see what it was.  I have that same feeling every day now except the pool hall has turned into the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and I don't have to wait for it to open because my badge lets me in whenever I want.

Do you still keep in touch with family and friends in Thunder Bay and at Lakehead University?

Yes, of course.  My parents and most of my extended family still live in Thunder Bay or the surrounding area.  Since my work takes me to several places around the world each year, it is difficult to find time to get up to Thunder Bay, but I try to visit at least every couple years or so.  I spent 27 years of my life in Thunder Bay so I have many great friends there.  It's difficult to stay in touch regularly but now with things like Facebook and email it's a little easier to say hello now and again.

Read more online http://humanorigins.si.edu/research/asian-research/hobbits


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