Credit:Taod, "Self-portrait in spin"

Thumbs up for Dr. Erin Marie Williams
by Lauren Bertin

[Blog post featured on Under the Microscope, September 2012]

Why have humans evolved such large and fat thumbs? For a long time, scientists had assumed that-- in comparison to our other fingers-- this physical distortion was the result of the pressure placed on these digits by our stone tool-wielding ancestors. But this past March, anthropologist Erin Marie Williams of George Washington University was one of three scientists to challenge this longstanding hypothesis by demonstrating that the normal force exerted on the thumb during stone tool production was in fact significantly lower than the force on our other fingers. For this contribution to our knowledge of human evolution and other achievements in her field, Dr. Williams was honored with a L'Oreal USA Women and Science Fellowship. Speaking at the award ceremony held earlier this month, she said, “all young scientists are experiments,” and as experiments, we are anything, but absolute.

Williams' success as a budding scientist owes in part to her love for her work, but also to her persistence, supportive mentors and keen eye for detail. "As part of my dissertation, I quantitatively described how people moved their arms as they are making tools. Having watched hundreds of hours of people conducting this activity, I realized people weren’t using their thumbs in the way that researchers in our discipline had thought for years and years," she explained.

During her acceptance speech, she said, "When I step into the lab, I am testing myself as much as I am testing my hypothesis. Sometimes I yield positive results and sometimes I find an alternative results are needed. We are also the experimental tinkerings of our parents, mentors and teachers."

As a minority and a woman in STEM, she has most definitely "tested" the norms of our current society. Growing up in governmental housing in Ann Arbor, Michigan with "two parents, bedtime and homework rules," she and her two brothers were considered "odd-balls." While as a child Williams enjoyed and was good at school, she remembers being drawn mainly to the humanities. "I was terrible in AP Physics and got a C," she recounts. "I have to use it a lot now and I am constantly referring to the textbook."

Attending Grinnell College in Iowa for her undergraduate education, she majored in anthropology because it was "enticing." While she initially intended to become a lawyer, by the end of her time at Grinnell it became clear to Williams that she wanted anthropology as more than a major-- she wanted it as a career.

While pursuing her master's degree at George Washington University, she realized she was not only interested in the field of anthropology, but moreover in "the biological side of human history, essentially human evolution." There she was given the opportunity to attend classes at the medical school. "It was amazing to open up a chest cavity and see how everything is packed in there," Williams reminisced. "It is both fun and intellectually satisfying to see how everything works together."

But working with a deceased carcass has not always been a cup of tea for Williams. While working on her PhD in hominid paleobiology at George Washington University, she enrolled in a course in which students had to design and implement a project. After deciding to investigate the de-fleshing process of a deer, Williams and her peers had to deal with months of managing the carcass, "freezing it and unfreezing it andfreezing it and unfreezing it."

"That was memorable. It wasn't pleasant. But I learned a lot - like I do not want to work with tissue that's a month old," Williams chuckled. But no matter the amount of time she spends dealing with deceased tissues, Williams is always involved in some sort of "adventure," be it in the biomechanics lab or dodging scorpions, floods and windstorms in the field. To deal with these realities, that range from simple hard work to the downright "bizarre,"she sometimes enjoys just acting "silly."

Her experiences exemplify that we all should experiment a little bit in our own lives, and maybe not take things as seriously or absolutely as we tend. Moreover, she emphasized the importance of having supportive individuals around you, especially as a woman in science. "I can say that if it hadn't been for my mentor, I literally would not have finished graduate school," Williams says. "Having a strong mentor and also having women around you whose lives look attractive is important. If you want a family and if you want kids, seeing researchers who have done that makes it seem a lot more possible and achievable."

At the end of the day, Williams is rewarded and motivated by the "little victories" in her every day life. "Today, I just finished edits on a manuscript and I went back and looked at the figures and thought: those look much better than figures I put together a year ago at this time," she says. "It's nice to think about my own evolution as a scientist."