We pride ourselves on the research coming out of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Our faculty have contributed to the breadth and depth of the discourse in their research areas. Ranging from political economy to craniofacial growth, those research areas are as diverse as the complex human endeavor our faculty strive to analyze and understand. Ultimately, their fine research aids us in understanding human behavior and relationships, the foundation of human cultures and societies, which each of our faculty explores from a distinct perspective.
Today, we meet Dr. Chelsey Juarez, who joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the 2012-2013 academic year as an Assistant Professor specializing in Forensic Anthropology.
I’m from California. I grew up in the Central Valley of California. It’s a big state so if you think about where San Francisco is and you go two hours east into the Central Valley that’s where I was born and raised. My mom and my stepdad are nut farmers. My mom is Portuguese but my biological father is Mexican from Mexico who came to the United States. He’s from Jalisco but his birth certificate says Michoacán.
Where did you attend college and what did you study?
I did my undergraduate work at Berkeley. I entered as a chemistry major and changed to anthropology really late in the game. I actually had to stay another year. But I got my bachelors in anthropology and women’s studies, and I did my PhD in physical anthropology with a specialization in forensic anthropology at UC – Santa Cruz with Alison Galloway.
How did you discover your chosen area and when did you know it was what you wanted to pursue?
I loved chemistry. I still love it, which is why I work with isotopes. I worked in the Organic Chemistry Department the entire time that I was an undergraduate at Berkeley. I intended to go to medical school and, as a sophomore, I received a very coveted internship at the Berkeley Free Clinic as a medic. I worked as a medic at the Berkeley Free Clinic, and at the Children’s Hospital Oakland for several years. The Berkeley Free Clinic is a really special place. It was started by Vietnam veterans after the war. Medics in the army came and gave treatment to veterans who were homeless, and they still have that special arrangement. They have a couple doctors who are on staff and they train you. You go through this year-long training program to see very specific conditions and then you see the appointments. I learned how to do phlebotomy, I saw STD appointments.. It was a really unique experience and it helped me realize that I was not made to work with living people.
It wasn’t for me. I had been doing all this stuff for medical school, taking the MCAT, doing these internships, and suddenly I realized that I didn’t want to do this job. There was a doctor, a really cool guy, who worked there, and I went up to him and told him that it wasn’t for me. I was kind of having a meltdown. And he was like, “Don’t give up. You’re good at this. We just need to find out what it is that you’re supposed to do. What about this do you not like?”
And I was like, “I don’t like the human suffering part.” The doctor goes, “Ok, well maybe you should think about working with dead people.” So, I went to the morgue. I started volunteering there and I thought, Yeah. I like this.
It was kind of providence because at that time I was taking an introduction to forensic anthropology class at CAL and I was like, “This is it. This is for me.” I went up to the teacher and I was like, “I love you. I love this class. And this is what I want to do with my life. I’m a chemistry major. How can I change?” And she was like, “Ok.” She took me under her wing. I stayed an extra year and became an anthropology major, which was good because I’d already taken a whole bunch of biology classes for medical school. At that time at Berkeley, biology and anthropology were kind of integrated. But I had no cultural anthropology whatsoever and had to take all of that stuff and start from the beginning, but I had enough to where the entire process wasn’t too bad. I had no extracurricular anthropology experience. So, after I graduated, I worked two jobs. I was a Starbucks barista and worked on the remains of a former slave plantation for an anthropology graduate student during the day so that I could understand what anthropological research was like, what it was about, how I should conduct myself. We presented a paper together. We presented a poster together and went to professional conferences. And then I said, “Ok. I’m ready to go to grad school.”
Have you had any formal jobs besides teaching?
I am debt free from undergrad and I am debt free from grad school, but I worked three jobs as an undergraduate student. I was a note taker for the Black Lightning Note-Taking Service. I worked in the Organic Chemistry Department and I also worked as a Starbucks barista. And that was before the Obama law where you could stay on your parent’s insurance. I had to have insurance because I’m a type 1 diabetic, and I worked at Starbucks to get my insurance. I did that for a long time. I also got scholarships. I spent a lot of time writing for scholarships and grants and I was really successful. But it was a really treacherous… It was hard. I reflect on that a lot and when students come up to me and ask, “How did you do it?” I’m like, “It was suffering.” (Laughter)
Do you ever experience any burnout?
I do, but I like to write things down to help myself get over it. It’s something I started doing in undergrad. If you ever come to my house, you’ll see that there are these signs. They’re posted in my office at my home. I have one that says “Manifest.” And there are others. I put it up there to remind myself. This is what I chose. I know what my limitations are. I know how hard I can work. I know what I want to do. And I also know about myself. This is my thing that I love and I’m not ready to pull back from giving it everything that I have. So I do get burned out, but I look at those signs to remind myself of the things that I gave up and the people that I miss. I keep them there to remind myself. Every day, I have to manifest something that moves me forward. And if I don’t then I’m wasting my time.
This semester I’m teaching the human osteology class, much to my students’ chagrin, I think. (Laughter) It’s a hard class but a good class. I also teach introduction to physical anthropology, introduction to forensic anthropology. Last year, I offered an introduction to forensic isotopes. This year, I’m going to be teaching a paleopathology class and a human variation class. All of these classes, with the exception of the introduction to forensic isotopes, are classes that I’ve taught before.
I’m really excited about the paleopathology class. It’s not really fair to call it paleopathology because “paleo” means old, like archaeologically older. The class incorporates disease in bones from archaeological remains but it also covers modern material and how diseases in bones manifest themselves in modern populations. We take a clinical approach to diagnosing bone disease, and I really love that because one of the things that we can do to empower students is to give them tools and teach them boundaries. We can give them something they can actually use. That’s also why the osteology class is cool because when they’re done they have something that nobody can take away from them that they can apply in a real life situation. Obviously, for many of them, they’ll apply it in graduate school but if they choose not to go on to a PhD they could do it for law enforcement, they could use it for a CRM (Cultural Resource Management) firm. It’s a useful skill. The paleopathology class is a little bit like that too because with the clinical approach they learn what we call an operational definition. It’s not for every single disease. There are a select number of diseases this applies to. The operational definition consists of about four or five criteria, like a doctor would use – you have a cough, you have a fever, you have a swollen this or that, so then these are our choices. It’s that clinical approach to diseases of the skeleton. The operational definition really narrows it down. It identifies the characteristics that are really important. That’s what the students focus on. It’s a way, in some cases, to definitively identify diseases from each other, and that’s powerful because students can walk away having that skill. If they do well and remember these characteristics, they can take that skill to field school or on their own projects. It’s really cool.
Could you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
Right now, I’m teaching a lot of laboratory-based classes like the osteology and paleopathology classes, which are hands-on. Effective hands-on learning is of primary importance to me, and that means having the right tools. One of the first things I did when I got here was to assess our skeletal collections for teaching. I went into the labs. I talked to Dr. Ross. I talked to Dr. Case. I asked them, “What do we have for teaching the students these classes (osteology and paleopathology)?” We had some skeletal material. We had some casts. But, I noticed that we didn’t have a fragment collection for examinations in the osteology class. In my opinion, this is a really important component of osteology exams. The students need to be tested on fragments because in real life situations, the bones we find are rarely in one piece. So, I made a whole bunch of calls and requested skeleton materials that were no longer in use. I found some old skeletal material at UNC – Chapel Hill. I went over there and collected all of that material. With the help of Kristen Chew, I designed a fragment collection based on the fragment collection that we had at UC – Santa Cruz. That’s the fragment collection that students are using for the osteology class now. I want students to have the opportunity to be excellent. You have to have the real thing so that you can actually do the real thing. I believe in that and I’m willing to support it. That’s my teaching philosophy for these lab classes.
I also teach classes that are introductory or more theoretical. In these courses I encourage students NOT to raise their hand. I just want them to shout it out. Raising your hand puts you at risk of losing whatever it is, that spark that you had. Some of the greatest discussions and the greatest ideas, frankly, in any class – and this was especially true at Santa Cruz – come from the students who are questioning when you’re giving a lecture. A lecture is not you talking to them, it’s a discussion that you have with each other. The questions and ideas that the students come up with about whatever you’re presenting are all opportunities for learning and they need to be respected. I believe in cross-pollination of ideas and this sort of free-flow. I don’t want to call it casual, but the classroom is like a sacred space. When we go in there, it’s not me telling them. It’s us telling each other. Sometimes, they come up with stuff and I’m like, “Wow, I never thought about that. I really never thought about that and I’ve been doing this for a really long time.”
What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?
When I was an undergraduate, I used to think that my professors knew everything. And now that I’m a professor, I’m like, “Wow. Now you see the Truth.” First, a good professor is prepared but a good professor is also honest. There is an element of performance to standing in front of a class and leading a performance and creating a spark of excitement whether you’re talking about a bone or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. You have to use a little bit of your own personality and your own theatrics to pump in the excitement and pull those students together. But the thing to me that is most important is that I don’t believe in reifying hierarchy. If I don’t know, I’m going to tell them that I don’t know. And I don’t do that just to cover myself. Sometimes they’ll ask a question and I’ll be like, “That is a great question, and I don’t know the answer to it. But I’m going to go and I’m going to see what I can figure out and then I’ll report back to you.” And then we talk about it. Students make the mistake of thinking that they have to know every single thing.. You don’t. I want to show them that you can be accomplished, you can be good at certain things, and you can have a general knowledge about other things, and once a question goes beyond the lines of that general knowledge, you have to be able to say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” If you’re prepared and you’re honest with students, I think that’s the best that you can do.
How do you define success and what does a student need to do in order to be successful in your class?
To say that a successful student needs to work hard is truly not enough. I also don’t always adhere to the generic idea that an “A” is the only definition of success. It really depends on the class. In some classes, I think that the metrics that are set up define success well and are pretty straight forward: you do this, you know this, and you get an A. But some classes really push the student to learn a new way of thinking or of seeing the world. These classes go beyond “putting in the time.” In these classes there are a great many people that are working very hard and they will not be rewarded with an “A.” I’ll give you an example. I really like the osteology class because it’s not curved and it is hard. It is really, really hard. The students learn the entire skeleton and their tests are fragments and sometimes those fragments are smaller than the size of a dime. They need to be able to side and identify a fragment and tell me that it’s human. We do that with the entire body, everything, all of these little features on bones. It’s incredible. And when they’re done, they have this skill that is so incredible. But in order to become excellent in that, you have to commit. You commit yourself to this one goal. It goes beyond hard work; you have to train your mind to recall in 3D. You also have to train yourself to trust your own judgment, and to go beyond memorization into true understanding. They are in the lab outside of class time studying for hours, some times 20+ hours per week. This class also has metrics, and the students that receive an A in this class from me are truly excellent and successful. But, there are many students that will not receive an ” A.” In this case passing the class is success, it is an achievement.
What do you want students to take away from your courses?
I design my courses to give them maximum benefit. But that can only be attained if they put in maximum effort. Every time I’m in the classroom, every time I design a class, I design it so that they get what they came here to NC State to get. I want them to have the ability to become excellent. Of course, I want them to be excellent. I demand that they put forth the effort to be excellent. Sometimes they can be. Sometimes they can’t be. But they will have the opportunity to do that in the classes that I teach. And sometimes they come away from the class with a card that they can put out on the table, a skill or a theoretical framework. Whatever it is, the opportunity for them to be excellent is always going to be there. When they leave this place, I want them to be able to hold their own, regardless of where they go.
If you could create and plan your dream course, what course would it be?
It would either be a human osteology class with a juvenile osteology component or a two part (two semester) paleopathology class. I’m working on putting together a skeletal collection to teach a juvenile osteology class. Getting real juvenile material is difficult so I’m getting what I can and then getting casts to fill in the rest.
The paleopathology class that I’m teaching next semester focuses on the identification of disease in the skeleton and it is really one half of the whole class that I have in mind. That dream paleopathology course would span two semester and the first half would be the theory component of paleopathology where we talk about demographics, populations and cemetery collections. We would ask questions like, what does health mean? What does disease mean? How does it spread? And then, in the second class, we would cover the clinical identification of the diseases on the skeletons.
What are some of your favorite assignments for students?
In the introduction to forensic anthropology course, they do a case report. I love that because I get to make a case with real skeletal material. So I lay it out and the students have to come in and write up their own case report. That’s their last project of the year. That’s their final. They get to apply all these methods. A lot of the time they work in teams and they apply everything – their osteology knowledge, the methodological knowledge that they have, a little bit of pathology knowledge. And it’s fun. It’s fun for me because I tell them that this a “legal document.” I tell them, “You are a forensic anthropologist. You are submitting your report to me, the sheriff. This is what I’m asking you to do. So when I get that report, it better be professional.” So they make their own little letterhead. (Laughter) They attach little fake business cards. It’s great. It’s really fun. It’s super artistic and also applied and they put a lot of thought into it. I really love that.
Have you learned anything from your students?
Oh, I definitely have. I learn from them all the time. My favorite way of learning from them is really learning from their questions, because they are often unexpected. I was teaching a human variation class and I had this student who was really into outer space. We were talking about bone density and what happens to the body in space. We talked about how the first cosmonaut who went into space wasn’t able to stand up when he came out of the capsule because when you go into space the skeletal muscle is not able to work on the bone because you don’t have any gravity. That’s why you see the astronauts doing these little exercises and riding little bikes in space. They’re trying to prevent that degradation from happening. They can’t stop it but they can slow it down a little bit.
So, my student was like, “There are all kinds of metabolic processes going on in the body and we’re different. Individuals of European ancestry are different from individuals of African ancestry and are different from individuals of Asian ancestry in the way that we metabolize things like Vitamin D. So how does that impact who the best astronaut is?”
And I’m like, “Man, what an awesome question!” How awesome is that? And so I conferred with a couple of my colleagues and presented this question to them and it turns out that an African-American woman who had two children and never breastfed them would be the ideal astronaut. And that was from a student’s question. Their minds are thinking about all of this stuff and I’m like, “Wow. That’s genius.”
I’m a forensic anthropologist, so we do case work. But my research interests are really on the Latino diaspora in the past but also in the present. One of the things that I do is use isotopic analysis of human teeth, human bone, and hair to identify birth place and migratory pattern of people who die crossing the US-Mexico border. We want to expand that into Central and South America so that we can track people who are coming up through Mexico and identify them. I do that and that’s in a forensic setting. I also do isotopes on cold cases.
I’m also working on a project analyzing the evolution of diabetes in Latino populations. We have an archaeological population from the Tarascan empire, which is so cool. The Tarascans were one of the only Mesoamerican populations that were never conquered by the Aztecs. They are incredible. They’re such an interesting population. They are also a really well documented population. We have a population that starts at early agrarianism, early farmers, all the way to contact. The project is looking at dietary reconstruction, ancient DNA, and identifying diabetes in skeletal material. We are trying to tie the initiation of SNPs related to diabetes to things like dietary change.
Can you tell me about the theoretical framework you’re developing?
For the diabetes project we are looking at the role of diet and genetics and how, when, and if they have a relationship to the appearance of diabetes in this Mexican population. Latinos, Mexicans in particular, have diabetes 2.5 times more than European Americans of equal health. So the question is: Why do they have that? Why is that happening? We’re going to ask questions like: Do we see a shift in diet over time? If we do see a shift, what kind of shift is it? Is it a shift in carbohydrates? What does the protein look like? What are the sources of those proteins? Then we have a genetic component. My colleague, Cris Hughes, at Urbana-Champaign is running the ancient DNA on those people and we’re specifically looking for snips (SNPs) that are related to diabetes and the prevalence of that changing over time. So, we’re looking at dietary change over time and we’re overlaying that with genetic change over time. In addition, we want to see if we can identify the presence of diabetes in the skeleton, which has never been done before. That way we can see the progression of the disease physically and genetically over time.
Now, does that mean that we will uncover the evolution of diabetes in all Mesoamericans? No. What we find will have some overlap with other communities, but it maybe very specific to this population, and this area. However, these people have descendent communities some of whom still live in this area. So what we find may help uncover something about diabetes and something that maybe helpful to this living population as well.
How long do you see this research project running?
We will be starting and running this semester, but we won’t be finished for several years., I’m working with several colleagues on this and we’ve applied for a grant and so we’re just waiting to hear back. If we get the go-ahead, we will start the imaging in January and will be writing papers from it immediately.
Have you faced any challenges so far in building this project?
There have been some challenges with getting the lab up and running, but that is to be expected.
How often do you collaborate with others in the investigation of your research question?
All the time. I have one colleague in particular that I work really well with, Dr. Cris Hughes. She makes the projects workable, something that we can do in a reasonable amount of time so that we can get funded, and something that we can actually implement.
What do you hope the implications of this research will be for future researchers?
I’m a diabetic and I’m really interested in the end part of it, which is the opportunity, I hope, to work with descendent communities. This project is focused on type 2 diabetes and I’m a type 1 diabetic, but I remember being given a pamphlet about diabetes and thinking I was going to die. I didn’t know what it was really about and they were like, “Here’s a pamphlet.” And I’m like, “Here’s a pamphlet? I know people who get their legs cut off for this! I don’t need a pamphlet. I need help. Put me in the hospital.”
So, I’m hoping the research can have an impact on the descendant communities and the people that work with them. It doesn’t have to be me talking to them directly, but I’d really like to find something that can help. There’s the chance that we won’t find anything with this project that can work in that way, but there’s also the chance that, maybe, we do, and there’s something really empowering about that.
You’ve touched on this, but what are your research plans for the next 5-10 years?
This project is definitely a five-year project. The cold cases and the border project are indefinite. I have a five-year timeline that I update every year and I think about what the projects are and how many things have been accomplished with each project and then what the next steps are. I refine it, sometimes more than once a year. Sometimes, you’ll have setbacks. Sometimes, you’ll get farther than you thought.
For example, the border project has always really focused on Mexico, I would like to expand that and focus on Central and South America. I would also like to shift some of that data and think about how it can impact immigration policy in our country.
Right now, I’m not so focused on an unanswered question; I’m focused on our methods. In forensic anthropology, I think about it all the time. I think about our methodology. I think about standardization. I think about how I teach the students the methods that we use. I want us to be held accountable. I want the community, as a whole, to force ourselves to be excellent, and I want us to be held accountable for it. Every time. Whatever we do. I don’t want us to fight about being excellent, trying to say this or that is too hard. No. I just want us to do it.
Is there a subject in the field that you wish you knew more about?
I wish I knew more about everything. I wish I knew more about engineering. I’m very, very interested in biomedical engineering. In my spare time I read up on the biomechanical nature of bone.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young scholars trying to chart a career path for themselves?
You only need one person to say yes. A lot of people are going to say no to you. And you have to deal with that. You have to compartmentalize that and set it aside because you only need one person to say yes to you. So, you have to keep going until you find that one person.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I have so many favorite parts. I love my colleagues. You meet a lot of academics and they can’t stand each other. It’s terrible in their departments. It’s like World War III. But it’s not like that here for me. I love my colleagues and one of the reasons why is because you go into this world and you meet people who are excellent. When you are surrounded by people like that it’s exciting. My colleagues are like that and I’m so excited to be around them. And I’m thrilled that they feel that way about me.
I also really like the grad students. I like working with them. I love the lab. I love working in the lab. It’s beautiful and there are so many windows.. So, I get very inspired to come to work. I have a beautiful room to work in and I love my projects. I love the people that I work with and we have these exciting students around us who are like, “Let’s do this” or “Let’s try that.” I chose wisely. I made the right decision.
Do you have a favorite place? It can be anywhere in the world.
Wow, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling and I have many, many favorite places. Most of them are in Mexico. But, in my heart I’m a homebody. I love my parent’s farm, for some reason the air smells so sweet at their house. I love the lab in Park Shops. That’s my favorite place to go. I like my office, too, but I like to be surrounded by my machines, my bones, with students coming in and out, and just seeing the work and the microscopes.
What are some of your guilty pleasure television shows?
I really like Downton Abbey. I also like the show with the zombies, The Walking Dead. It’s kind of treacherous, though, so I only watch it every once in a while. I only use my computer, I have Netflix . TV is bad. Not because there’s anything wrong with TV but because I’m weak. I grew up on a farm and we didn’t really have television. I didn’t even watch MTV until I went to college. So if there is TV, I will sit there in front of the TV and I will watch it. It’s pretty much forbidden in my home.
Do you have any free-time activities that you enjoy?
One of my colleagues that I love very much has got me hooked on the gym, more specifically on spin class. Last year, I didn’t have a gym membership but she kept inviting me, so I went and I became hooked. My guilty pleasure activity is spin class. Twice a week. There are a few other classes I really like but spin is my favorite.
We’d like to thank Dr. Juarez for her exuberance and participation. If you’re interested in contacting her to discuss her research, you can find her information here: Faculty Listing – Dr. Chelsey Ann Juarez.
Until next time,
The Department of Sociology and Anthropology