Q&A with anthropology professor Zaneta Thayer

by Alice Zhang | 4/3/18 2:00am

4318plunkettcourtesy
Source: Courtesy of Zaneta Thayer

Zaneta M. Thayer ’08 returned to Dartmouth in 2016 after eight years to teach as an assistant professor in Dartmouth’s anthropology department. After graduation, Thayer pursued a Ph.D. in biological anthropology as a presidential fellow at Northwestern University and worked as an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver from 2014-2016. At Dartmouth, Thayer conducts research in biological anthropology. Her studies examine how early life and prenatal environmental experiences influence biology and health across one’s lifespan.

What drew you to anthropology?

ZT.: I actually applied to Dartmouth because I thought I wanted to study anthropology and go to New Zealand, and I knew the foreign study program went there. So I double majored in anthropology and biology, in part because I was interested in biological anthropology … and so I could have more classes on evolutionary theory and human physiology. That ended up being really beneficial. I did my undergraduate thesis on the adaptiveness of the human chin — something completely different than what I do my research on now.

Where were you before returning to Dartmouth, and what was the process like coming back?

ZT: When I came to Dartmouth, Hanover was the biggest town I had ever lived in; my [home]town didn’t even have stoplights. When I went to Chicago [after college], it was a completely different experience. It was a fun place to be in my twenties, but it also made me appreciate Dartmouth a lot. Northwestern is a really great research institution, but as a graduate school, despite the fact that there was an amazing faculty, the undergraduates had no access to them. The undergraduates mostly had access to the graduate students, who then had access to the faculty. So it made me appreciate even more the fact that, as an undergraduate, I was able to work with a faculty member directly on my senior thesis and write articles with him.

Can you tell me more about your research?

ZT: I’m a biological anthropologist. Within biological anthropology, I am a human biologist, so I’m really interested in trying to understand how the environment influences patterns of human biology and health. The environment could entail aspects of the ecological environment — how does living in a desert or a really high altitude impact your human biology? The environment also includes the social environment — how could experiences of poverty or discrimination influence patterns of biology and health? That’s basically where my focus has been. A lot of my research has focused on trying to understand how early life and prenatal environmental experiences influence biology and health across the life course. I work in New Zealand still, basically working with a big birth cohort. A bunch of pregnant women were recruited, and now we’re following their kids as they grow and develop to try and understand how early environments influence their health. The other project I’m working on is about native health in the U.S. and trying to understand how experiences in early life and across the life course influence biology and health in adulthood.

What are some of the major differences between being a student and a faculty member?

ZT: One is just experiencing the region. When I was a student at Dartmouth, my life was basically on campus, and now my husband and I live in downtown Norwich, so I am only a mile and a half away. It only takes me an hour to walk to my office from home, but there are no undergraduates over there, aside from people who go on runs. One of my colleagues describes the bridge as kryptonite for undergraduates. It’s kind of funny to just be able to explore different spaces. I have a car so I can actually drive around and see more of the region ... I feel like I did a little bit of that in college, trying to go on hikes and things, but I’ve been able to really experience the region in a more in-depth way.

Has Dartmouth changed from the time [during which] you were an undergraduate to now?

ZT: In terms of our department, we’ve had some big changes. When I was an undergrad here, there was only one biological anthropologist, and now there are three of us. From a very selfish perspective of thinking that anthropology is the best thing ever, I think it’s pretty great. I like to think that it’s great for our students because they get to experience biological anthropology from some very different perspectives.

What else do you enjoy doing around Dartmouth?

ZT: I like hiking, rock climbing and touring breweries. Vermont has lots of great beer, and I go to bar trivia with friends. I’m also on a volleyball league; I try and stay active. I think the interesting thing about being somebody who studies the effects of stress on health is that, ironically, it’s a lot of stress being a researcher in general, so I try and take as many opportunities as I can to relieve stress effectively, which is often through exercise. That’s what I really try and squeeze in, even if I’m really stressed out with work.

What is an aspiration you have?

ZT: What I like about the research area I’ve come into is the fact that I’m able to straddle these personal, academic, esoteric interests in things like evolution biology with an interest in public health and reducing health disparities. In my research, I’m interested in trying to understand how stress influences health, which is really important for health disparities, and I’m really interested in thinking about why evolution has shaped our stress response systems the way it has. So I think that a challenge I want to continue to work on in my career is doing research that’s interesting to academics but also has a real world relevance. As academics, we’re often accused, and rightfully so, of spending our time on projects that maybe don’t have a lot of applied relevance. So trying to straddle those two things is something that I’m always trying to do, and hope to do better throughout my career.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.