STEMinist Profile: Katie Biittner, Archaeologist

Katie Biittner

Katie Biittner


Currently a Sessional Instructor (term contracts) in Anthropology for various institutions. When I am not teaching I am the Communications Assistant for the Graduate Students Association at the University of Alberta (currently on leave for Winter Term 2012).

Organizations: University of Alberta (on and off since 2008), Okanangan College (Vernon and Salmon Arm campuses, Winter 2012), University of Lethbridge (Edmonton campus, Summer 2012)

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I always loved the sciences. As a child I wanted to be a mad scientist (literally, I’d describe these plans for a lab in my basement and the crazy schemes I had for taking over the world) or a medical doctor (cardiology), but once I got into high school I became really passionate about studying other cultures. I also started to realize that although I loved chemistry and biology, I wasn’t performing as well in them as a student as I was in history.

Anthropology, and more specifically the sub-discipline of archaeology, provided me an opportunity to do both. As an archaeologist I use scientific methods to study past cultures and answer questions about behaviour and culture. I borrow methods and techniques from chemistry and geology to characterize the types of rock (lithics) used by people for tools in the past.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
This reminds me of the number one question archaeologists get: what is the coolest thing you’ve ever found? For me, the answer to both of these questions relates to the same project. In 2006 I began working in Iringa region, Tanzania as part of my PhD supervisor’s research program called IRAP (Iringa Region Archaeology Project). I’ve since finished my PhD and am now a collaborator, running an offshoot of IRAP called CHIRP (Cultural Heritage in Iringa Research Program).

Our first field season in 2006 started off as a “simple” reconnaissance project: we wanted to survey the region for archaeological sites, record them, and conduct simple test excavations to establish a culture history for that region. At one of the two larger sites we identified we found six and a half fossil hominid teeth. I found the first one! These teeth have since been studied extensively (we hope to publish the results soon!). We are now slowly but methodologically excavating our sites in Iringa focusing on the recovery of additional fossil fragments as well as samples for dating.

We are contributing to the ongoing discussion concerning the origin of our species, and believe we have some sites that are yielding important evidence of occupation during the extremely cold phases of the late ice age when large parts of Africa were abandoned. This project is the coolest because I love working in Tanzania, and following in the footsteps of so many famous palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists. Like most research projects, I love that our goals and methods are constantly changing based on what we recover and what our analyzes yield.

Role models and heroes:
Mary Leakey, who really paved the way for female palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists in East Africa. Barbara E. Luedtke, who conducted some of the best chert sourcing studies in North America; I still aspire to achieve the quality of work she did. Glynn Isaac, an amazing geoarchaeologist who did brilliant, pioneering research and wrote such great, accessible papers about it.

My MA supervisor (Susan Jamieson) and my PhD supervisor (Pamela Willoughby), who were excellent mentors and are well respected contributors to their fields. My grandfather because he inspired me to follow my passion, and always made sure I had National Geographic as a kid.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Follow your passion; people always say this because the simple fact is: if you love what you do, it won’t always seem like work and it will be rewarding. Don’t think any goal is out of your reach. You are NOT an imposter (this last thing is easier said then done, I still have attacks of imposter syndrome). Contact people who inspire you and with whom you want to work. I still wish I was braver about this. I missed out on so many opportunities to work on amazing research projects because I never thought to ask.

Favorite website or app:
Twitter is a great tool for connecting with colleagues from around the world, and for communicating with students outside of the classroom. But hard days are always made a little better by a quick stop to I really like weather apps: I like knowing what the weather is like back home in Edmonton when I am in the field in Tanzania and vice versa. I also keep track of all the other places I’ve lived or where I’ve done field work (Idaho, Ontario). It’s a nice way to stay connected with these places and I know I’m not the only archaeologists/anthropologist that does this.

Twitter: @kbiittner
Site: (information about research, course syllabi, CV); I also have a blog (Mental Debitage) about my research, teaching, and life outside of the classroom.

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