Cynthia Liutkus


Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Photo: Cynthia Liutkus

Photograph by Brian Zimmer

Birthplace: New Jersey

Current City: Boone, North Carolina

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I changed my "future profession" many times as I was growing up, but I always knew it would be related to the physical sciences. At first, I wanted to be an oceanographer or underwater archaeologist, then an astronomer, a paleontologist, and then an environmental lawyer.

How did you get started in your field of work?

It wasn't until my third year of undergraduate work that I decided to pursue geology (and academia) as a career. I was studying abroad in Australia at the University of Melbourne and took a course in historical geology from Dr. Ian Plimer. After seeing the passion with which Dr. Plimer taught his classes (and watching as he concurrently defended science and evolution in an ongoing court case), I was inspired to teach and specifically, teach students about earth science, evolution, and deep time.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to geology?

I think it comes down to the question, Who are we? I am a geologist who works with paleoanthropologists and archaeologists to investigate early human/hominid history. The paleoanthropologists/archaeologists excavate the "bones and stones" found in the fossil record to interpret the morphology and behavior of the fauna, and the geologists then take the surrounding rocks and, through various analyses, put the fossils into an ecological context by reconstructing the paleoenvironment. For me, the picture of "who we are" becomes more meaningful when we view our ancestors on the ancient landscape.

What's a normal day like for you?

As a geology professor, I live a double life: professor during the academic year, and field researcher during the summer months. Think Indiana Jones, without the bad guys or expensive artifacts. A day in the life of the professor consists of being at my office early to balance lecture preparations, student concerns, faculty meetings, grant and manuscript writing, and academic service. At the end of the day, it's a 40-minute commute back home to tackle things there (e.g., cooking dinner, saving the dog from the odd tangle with a raccoon, grading exams, etc.).

Things are very different when I'm in the field, however. Since I conduct my field research in Africa, a typical day consists of an early breakfast (after a night in a tent listening to the hyenas whoop over the howling wind), then a hike to excavate and/or sample various locations in 100-plus-degree heat (while under the watchful eye of grazing zebras), before calling it a day around 4 or 5 p.m., when we hike back to camp to cool off in a nearby spring. Dinner is at 7 p.m. in an open mess tent (watch the scorpions if you're going to wear flip-flops to dinner). Then it's a short hike back to the sleeping tents under the most amazing night sky.

Do you have a hero?

Without hesitation, my father is definitely my hero. Born to an immigrant family in New Jersey who had very little, he was determined to overcome life's difficulties and become a professional. He sent himself to college and then graduate school and earned a Ph.D. in psychology. He successfully balanced life at home as well as a private practice. He taught my sister and me the value of hard work, perseverance, and passion, and was always our biggest supporter. He was the smartest man I ever knew. My father passed away last year due to complications with Parkinson's disease, and while I continue to grieve his passing, I am eternally grateful for who I am thanks to him.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

It was 1999 and I was a first-year MSc student. My advisor had been awarded a large grant from the National Science Foundation and I accompanied her to Tanzania to work at Olduvai Gorge for the summer. The Leakeys' work had always fascinated me, and Olduvai was the "Cradle of Mankind." I was beside myself with excitement-I would be working in a place that I had read about in National Geographic as a kid!

One morning I was working on an excavation and came across a bluish-black fossil tooth that look surprisingly familiar and, knowing the rich hominid fossil history preserved at Olduvai, I immediately thought I had found a hominid tooth. Jittery with excitement, I showed it to the archaeologists and can remember the exhilaration I felt when one of them held it next to my own canine tooth and said it could be possible. It ended up being a fossil pig tooth, but for that brief moment I knew what it felt like to discover something truly amazing and hold a relic of our human ancestors.

My most challenging experience came in 2010 as I led my first field season in Tanzania as the head scientist. Coordinating travel, field expenses, permitting, safety, and transportation for eight scientists, four students, and several governmental officials was time-consuming and difficult, but I had a wonderful team of researchers who were extremely patient and fantastic to work with. Thankfully, the field season went off without a hitch, despite the challenges, and we collected some exceptional data.

What are your other passions?

Teaching. I am a teacher and a researcher, and I believe the two go hand in hand. Over the past six-plus years since graduate school, I have thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with students and can honestly say that some of my best days are when I can help a student grasp a difficult topic and then make the link between concept and application. Teaching extends beyond the classroom as well as beyond the curriculum, and I've started taking undergraduate students to Africa for fieldwork. Seeing another culture and completely new experiences through a student's eyes is extremely rewarding, and I am so thankful to have that opportunity.

What do you do in your free time? I love to cook, especially ethnic foods (e.g., Indian, Thai, Japanese), and I enjoy reading about exotic locations, different cultures, and world history. When time and money permit, I am an avid traveler. But these days, my spare time is completely focused on planning my upcoming wedding.

If you could have people do one thing to increase their scientific knowledge, what would it be?

Open your mind to the fantastic research results that scientists are producing in fields such as planetary geology, geomicrobiology, human origins, and environmental science. Through education comes appreciation and conservation. So I would ask people to watch documentaries, visit museums, read science articles, encourage intellectual curiosity, and support science programs in schools. Science may not have all the answers, but we can only learn from it if we listen to what it has to say.

In Their Words

Science may not have all the answers, but we can only learn from it if we listen to what it has to say.

—Cynthia Liutkus

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