My name is Kimberleigh Tommy and I am currently the Science Communication Officer for the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences where I spend my time bridging the gap between science and community. This is an effort to increase public awareness regarding palaeosciences as a STEM career and to highlight the African fossil record. I have also recently obtained my Master of Science degree with distinction and no corrections from The University of the Witwatersrand, this is an accomplishment that does not happen often in academia! I study human evolution and more particularly the evolution of upright walking as well as ontogenetic development and how our bone changes as we accomplish this early childhood milestone. In studying the evolution of our bodies I hope to better understand how our current lifestyles affect our health and development.
Name: Kimberleigh Ashley Tommy
Alma Mater: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
STEM Career Path: Palaeoanthropology and functional morphology
KH: Who/What made you interested in pursuing paleontology?
KT: Initially I wanted to pursue a medical degree and to specialize as a pediatrician. I however realized that I did not quite have the heart for being a doctor and I really commend all of those who are in any medical fields, it is a tough job emotionally and takes a lot of strength! I then instead went on to do a Bachelor of Science with a focus on the biological sciences. I had broad training in my undergraduate degree and took a course on evolution in my final undergraduate year. This course changed my trajectory and I then pursued my postgraduate in paleontology. I realized very early on that there is a disconnect between science and the community, this is especially difficult when the question "How does this help people today?" arose.
I had to take a step back and evaluate my approach to my science. I study the evolution of our bodies so that I can better understand how our lifestyle choices can affect different aspects of our wellbeing. I specifically study joints, in 2016 I went on a workshop to Kenya and twisted my ankle while walking in the amazing markets of Nairobi. Coincidentally I studied the ankle joint for my MSc! This helped me better understand ankles and injuries and abnormalities we face today. I am hoping to grow in the field of public health by focusing on injury as well as development and bone degenerative diseases.
KH: What has been the most interesting part of your career?
KT: The most interesting part of my career so far has been the travelling and meeting new people. I have been fortunate enough to attend international as well as local conferences and workshops where I have met some amazing people from researchers to fossil preparators, all of whom are EQUALLY important to palaeontology. These people have all motivated me and supported me along my journey.
Also, I am based in an institute that houses the largest fossil hominin collection in Africa and probably one of the largest collections in the world. It is humbling to walk into the Philip V Tobias Fossil Hominin and Primate vault! You stand among ancient bones that give us clues about our very early origins, remains of species that were once part of our family tree.
KH: Why do you feel It is important to get more women into STEM fields?
KT: I think that it is important to encourage more women to pursue STEM fields because they bring a different perspective and voice to a conversation that was previously dominated by men. However, we shouldn’t look at women to come into spaces simply to create a gender balance or to keep males in check, that is not why we want diversity. We need to change the mindset, we need to change the curricula. We need to encourage women to pursue the STEM fields because they will contribute to the expansion of knowledge. We need to encourage women to pursue STEM because they love it, those sparks of interest we see at school level need to be harnessed into blinding flames that provide light to the next generation of thinkers.
It is important to show young girls that they are capable of doing anything they want to, that “their place” is wherever they want it to be and that when they enter a space, they are deserving! With that said, it is up to us to ensure that the field they enter is one that is welcoming, one that embraces change and one that facilitates growth.
This is a massive undertaking that has to include all stages of education but it is doable.
KH: What are your future plans as an Paleoanthropologist?
KT: South Africa has one of the most amazing and rich fossil records. We boast evidence for the very first multicellular organisms as well as some of the earliest origins of tetrapods, dinosaurs and mammals. Of course, we are also known for our hominin fossil record, boasting a number of species such as Paranthropus, Australopithecus prometheus, Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi. We also have a rich record of modern human development including stone tools, the use of fire as well as our amazing rock art.
We are rich in all of these resources but we have a shortage of African paleontologists, more specifically, a shortage of black African researchers in senior positions. This means that the vast majority of our population is not represented in academia. I would like to see this change and together with a group of other young aspiring paleontologists, geologists and archaeologists in this field we are driving change by giving a face to the science that is diverse.
My ultimate goal as a palaeoanthropologist is to contribute to the knowledge body of my field through research work, to highlight our fossil record and the potential for more discoveries. Alongside this personal goal is my goal for my community, this would be to diversify the science by breaking down language barriers and tackling issues such as racism head on. One day I hope to run a successful palaeoanthropology lab or an institute here at my Alma Mater that competes with the rest of the world. I hope to give back to my country in terms of facilitating growth and opportunities for other young women of colour entering this field. I hope that we can dismantle the ivory tower that academia has built up, or at least rattle its foundations so that science becomes a multidisciplinary initiative that benefits our local communities.
KH: Best advice you’ve ever received?
KT: The best advice I have received was from my mother “Find what speaks to you most in this world and run to it, immerse yourself in it and build a life around it without fear. Always stay true to yourself.”
There is always fear when you are a young academic and are strongly opinionated but you cannot ever let that fear consume you, instead you have to embrace it and allow it to fuel you.
KH: How do you enjoy your summer weekends?
KT: I enjoy reading, I love thrillers and crime novels. I also enjoy spending time with my family and of course binge watching series, The Handmaids Tale and Insecure are probably my favourites lol.
KH: For young women interested in paleontology how can they get started?
KT: Palaeontology in South Africa is only offered as a postgraduate degree, for any one interested I would suggest taking biology or geology in their undergraduate courses. I would also really suggest a course in the humanities, anthropology, linguistics or art history even! This helps to broaden your mind in terms of what you might potentially be interested in. There are many facets to palaeontology and many ways to approach the field. Some universities offer archaeology in their undergraduate programs which is also a fantastic course to take up, speak to your lecturers, ask about joining excavations, visit your local museums and of course approach any palaeo folk you may find on Twitter too!