This fall, Centre College alumna Rebecca (Williams) Cook ’15 will begin a Ph.D. program at Duke University, where she will work with Steve Churchill, professor in the department of evolutionary anthropology. However, her path to earning her Ph.D. is slightly different than most.
After graduating from Centre, Cook moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where she, quite accidentally, met Chris Walker, who is Churchill’s former student and is currently an assistant professor of anatomy at the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University.
Over the last year, Cook has been working in Walker’s evolutionary anatomy lab, focusing on the digital side of evolutionary research.
“My work mostly involves 3D scanning and 3D printing, as well as making our data available on MorphoSource, an open access digital repository for 3D media,” she explained. “The research I’ve done in Walker’s lab has refined my interests in the field to the evolution of the hominid pelvis. I plan to pursue this topic for my dissertation.”
With a passion for anthropology, Cook will study evolutionary anthropology at Duke.
“This program focuses on many aspects of this field from an evolutionary perspective, such as morphology and behavior of humans and non-human primates,” Cook explained. “Duke’s program is great for morphologists such as myself, because we are encouraged to take gross anatomy with the medical students. We leave well prepared to research and teach in the field.”
As an anthropology major at Centre, she was able to explore the different areas of evolution, and she was taught how to be creative in the ways in which she gains experience.
“Central Kentucky might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re on the subject of evolution, but Centre provided me with a space to learn and grow my passion,” she said. “I sought out different opportunities to gain experience with anything remotely related to hominid evolution.
“For example, I did research with faculty in both the anthropology and the biology programs. The flexibility and personalized attention I received was essential for my path to Duke,” she continued.
When Cook begins the Ph.D. program, she will be working with Churchill.
Cook said that Churchill has an enormous amount of respect and experience in the field of paleoanthropology, is a leading expert on Neanderthals and has also been involved in the recent discoveries of Homo naledi and Australopithecus sediba in South Africa.
She has already had the opportunity to travel with him, and she looks forward to continued research on this topic.
“I was initially intrigued with Dr. Churchill’s connections with the recent Homo naledi and Australopithecus sediba discoveries,” Cook added. “After looking into the program, I realized that Duke would be a great fit for me. The small program provides something very similar to the personalized experience I had at Centre. Duke will prepare me well to teach and research in the field of paleoanthropology.”
When Cook completes her Ph.D. program, she hopes to become a professor of anatomy or evolutionary anthropology at a university that allows her to continue her research on the evolution of the hominid pelvis.
by Kerry Steinhofer
June 19, 2018