Pamela Akuku hardly knew about zoo archaeology as one of the careers that one can pursue or specialise in. But fast forward to today, not only is she is passionate about the field but she has also taken it a step further and is pursuing taphonomy as her area of speciality.
Strategies of early hominis
This entails studying fossil faunal remains and her current focus is on the Pleistocene in Olduvai Gorge. As a taphonomic she looks at modification signals preserved on the faunal remains such as but not limited to cut marks and tooth marks, says Akuku. “These modifications inform us of the diet and strategies of early hominins, their interactions with carnivore guilds and how this has moulded our species,” she adds.
My studies also look at the different taxa present during the Pleistocene and how this has changed over time. Studying this can be used to infer how our faunal populations, climates and environments have changed over time and the strategies and adaptations employed by early hominins to keep up with said changes, Akuku further explains.
Graduating with distinction
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Akuku attended her primary and secondary school in the same area. She then went to pursue her Bachelor´s degree in anthropology and gender studies at the University of Nairobi. Upon completion of her undergraduate, she went to the University of the Witwatersrand to pursue an MSc in archaeology degree where she graduated with distinction.
Early exposure to fossils
Growing up, her passion was in writing and at one point she entertained the thought of creating wonderland and dreamlike adventures as a distraction from the world’s [harsh] realities. She also dabbled into poetry, short and literary arts although she was ultimately lured to the science simply because of her inquisitive mind. But she also feels her mother strongly influenced her to switch to the STEMi fields as she used to regularly take them to her workplace, the National Museums of Kenya, on weekends. This gave her first-hand exposure to fossils and artefacts and this captured her imagination.
“When I was 11 she [mother] made me join a club called ‘Young Researchers Club’ by the museum and we would do mock archaeological digs and skeletal reconstruction which I enjoyed wide-eyed. This was my first encounter with archaeology and how I came to like the subject so I explored it further and here I am,” says Akuku.
Winning prestigious awards
She says her work has brought nothing but pleasure as she got to work on some of the most famous archaeological sites in Africa including Koobi Fora in Kenya, Klasies River in South Africa and currently Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. She also bagged some prestigious awards or scholarship such as the Leakey Foundation Baldwin Fellowship which is aimed at African students pursuing STEMi studies in countries outside of their own.
On what should be done to increase the participation of young female scientists in STEMi, Akuku reckons outreach programme could make a difference. “Outreach can help change their outlooks of what scientists look like or who they are. Yes, Einstein was great but introduce the young women to scientists they can relate to and be inspired by. We could offer mentorship programs by women in STEMi for girls in STEMi,” Akuku.
Discrimination against racism and sexism
But like most women, Akuku highlights the twin evils of racism and sexism in the STEMi fields. “Archaeology has for decades been a very white male dominated field. Women who are in the field more often than not face sexism and discriminatory working conditions, women of colour come up against both sexism and racism. Their contributions may be belittled and young women researchers like me do get imposter syndrome from time to time,” Akuku observes.
Advice to young female scientists
She has an advice for young female scientists who want to pursue studies in STEMi stream. “If they have the passion for a particular STEMi stream they should not despair or be discouraged to pursue it”, says Akuku. Once you have established what stream you are interested in, you should get involved as early as possible through outreach programmes and scholarships as well as networking with other women, she adds.
“I believe we as the current researchers have the power to lift the future generations of women and help them break away from “gender norms”, concludes Akuku, adding the future generations have the capability to do great things and they are needed in STEMi.