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Where art meets science

Ashleigh Went

Until recently, “biological anthropology” was a term I could barely pronounce, much less comprehend.

That was until I spoke to Dr Alison Behie, Head of Discipline for Biological Anthropology at ANU College of Arts and Social Science (CASS).  

“Biological anthropology is a discipline that is trying to understand human uniqueness. We are trying to understand why humans and how humans are different from everything else living on the planet” Alison explains.

So if you’ve ever contemplated modern human behaviour and how exactly we became who we are today, you may well want to think about enrolling at CASS.  

What does a workday look like for a biological anthropologist? Alison says applications of the discipline range far and wide.

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“We have students that go into the conservation field working in wildlife conservation, a lot of our recent graduates are working in the public service, the Department of Health in particular. A lot of the work we do looks at the impacts of say prenatal health on childhood development and looking at policy issues around that.”

While biological anthropology looks at humans, it also has a focus on our nearest relatives: apes.  For Alison, it was the study of primates that cemented her love of the discipline.

“When I entered [the University of Calgary] from high school, I entered into a biology program but realised I wasn’t keen to do all the maths and science associated with it because that’s not what I was interested in. I was interested in the behaviour, and then I started a course in primate behaviour and completely fell in love with it.”

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The Biological Anthropology Major at CASS includes a range of primate-focussed units, including Primate Evolutionary Biology, Primate Ecology and Behaviour and Primate Conservation Biology, as well as the opportunity to study apes through fieldwork.

Interestingly, CASS is the only institute in Australia to offer a course in Biological Anthropology, despite its popularity in North America and the UK.

“I think it might be because we’re a field that sits between the humanities and the sciences. We do work that focuses on humans and primates that is humanities-focused, but the questions we’re asking are very scientific and biological in nature.”

While it may be the reason that the discipline has “fallen through the cracks”, the fact that it falls at the crossroads between humanities and science is precisely its appeal.

“Being convenor of this course has been really rewarding for me because I’ve been able to push the women in STEM agenda and let women know that there’s this field out there that isn’t necessarily a hard science, like physics for example, but allows you to be very scientific and understand the world in a different way.”

Not to mention, it’s an academic and career path that presents the opportunity to not only travel, but study and protect endangered species.

“When I did my doctoral work I actually did research in Central America on and off for many years with Howler monkeys looking at the impact of a hurricane. I also have two field types that I’m working at with my students – one in Vietnam and one in Cambodia.”

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Alison’s work in Vietnam is with the Cat Ba Langur – one of the most 25 endangered primates in the world, with approximately 60 remaining.

Alison’s love for her work is palpable – she wants to share it with more people, and especially more women.

“I just want people to know we’re here, I’m really passionate about getting the discipline noticed. It’s really exciting to think about getting a bigger reach and being able to get more people engaged with something that’s underrepresented in the field but is a really exciting area of study.”

If you’re interested in exploring opportunities and course options at the ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences, visit cass.anu.edu.au/study-with-us

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Ashleigh Went

Ashleigh Went has a passion for all things health and wellness. She’s currently furthering her studies in nutrition, but also has a Bachelor of Communication and is a qualified fitness instructor with over five years experience working in a gym. Among other things, she’s a lover of great food, coffee and fashion. She can usually be found shopping for activewear, in the gym or updating her Instagram @wentworthavenue More about the Author

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