Skip to main content

Using science to change the world

| Nicole Weiss

People lie. They deceive. They obfuscate. There is no paucity of evidence for this in history (or in our current time).

Though people may lie, data never do.

This is what originally attracted me to science and to the scientific method.

It is why I chose to major in biology, and to minor in anthropology and chemistry while at UW-Eau Claire, and it is why I am currently a Ph.D. student in biological anthropology at The Ohio State University.

It’s why I am training to become a forensic anthropologist, a scientist who identifies skeletal remains in a medicolegal context.

For many scientists, it is our job to tell the story of those who cannot speak; we advocate for those who cannot do so themselves.

For me, science has always been about giving voice to a story that otherwise would have gone untold.

My professors at UWEC were instrumental in shaping this mindset. Before starting to conduct research of my own as an undergrad, I was under the misconception that being a scientist and being an activist were mutually exclusive. One of the most important things I learned at UWEC is that I could be both.

My chemistry research adviser, Dr. Jim Phillips, is actively engaged in the campus and Eau Claire communities. As a physical chemist, he understands the science behind climate change.

He taught me that as scientists, our work may begin in the lab, but it certainly doesn’t end there. We have an obligation to inform others of our findings — findings that may have drastic and irreversible consequences on life as we know it, as is the case for climate change if it continues to be ignored.

I took my first steps outside the lab when I began working with Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff, an entomologist who also teaches a course in conservation biology at UWEC.

The first thing I noticed about Dr. Kleintjes Neff was that she does not just defy female stereotypes — she shatters them. I learned how to navigate a traditionally male-dominated field by observing her leadership skills in class, in the field and in the lab, and I aspire to become half the scientist she is today.

Arguably just as importantly, Dr. Kleintjes Neff also taught me to speak for the species we strive to protect. After all, who will give voice to these species if we do not?

I found myself drawn to anthropology for a similar reason. After taking an introductory archaeology class with Dr. Robert Barth, I realized that anthropologists are the storytellers of our humanity's history. We return voices to those who are no longer able to speak.

More specifically, I chose to become a biological anthropologist because our history — the recent past and the ancient past — is written in our bones, and sometimes that history differs from what is documented in textbooks or from what is reported by governments.

History books still largely focus on the lives of white, European males while discounting and disregarding the experiences of others. The “heroes” of history are those who had power of force or of discourse, while those who are oppressed by this same power are forgotten.

More often than not, these silenced voices are those of women, minority groups and the poor — in short, people who are marginalized by society.

Forensic anthropologists focus on the more recent past, often working on cases dating within the past 50 years.

Oftentimes, these individuals are victims of “forced disappearances,” as seen in Argentina, Iraq, Spain and countless other countries in past decades when a group in power abducts or imprisons people who oppose them. In other cases, these individuals are the victims of isolated crimes.

It is the job of the forensic anthropologist to construct the narratives of these individuals — those who are no longer able to convey their own stories. We tell the stories of the oppressed, the powerless and the disappeared, and in this way, agency is returned to those who have lost it.

My time at UWEC taught me that science is more than a method of problem solving.

Science also is action. It is advocacy. It is activism.

Yes, science is a way to know the world, but it also is a way to change it.