Dr. Andrea Eller, PhD (Biological Anthropology)

Dr. Andrea Eller

How would you describe your college experience?

For me, I side with Forrest Gump when he says: “College was confusing times”. On the one hand, it was so exciting to be exposed to all this knowledge, all these ways of thinking that I had never considered before. I took lots of social science courses in sociology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and the effect they had on me was profound. I wouldn’t be who I am today without some incredible MTSU faculty. On the other hand, I was dealing with a lot of life issues, shall we say, during that period. I worked part time to make ends meet, and my studies were frequently interrupted by bouts of mental health distress and alcohol abuse. Fairly common college antics, I’m afraid, but they created a lot of drama in my life before I learned how to deal with stress and relationships more positively. It took a long time to sort out what I really wanted to do with myself.

When did you know that you wanted to major in a STEM discipline?

I didn’t enter STEM until graduate school, actually, except a few preparatory courses. In fact, in college I was still reeling from all the negativity around being a female who was good in math and science. I still believed it wasn’t feminine to show off how smart I am. And my MTSU biology class was very careful about discussing evolution, my favorite scientific subject, and by that I mean the professor didn’t discuss it much at all. So, I knew if I wanted to study nature and life sciences I would have to find that somewhere else. Sad, but true back then.

I went on to find a different focus, and I took courses in biology, chemistry, and math to be competitive for graduate school in biological anthropology at the University of Oregon. And now I work at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum as a postdoctoral fellow, studying human evolution and urban environments.

What would you tell a middle or high school girl about careers in STEM?

We need you!! We need your perspectives, your voices, your talents. We need your creativity, and your ability to work well with others. We need your attention to detail, and willingness to help others succeed while you do the same. We need your courage, and your brilliance. We need you to show the world that girls and women are the key to returning the US to being one of the best countries in the world for producing innovative science and technology which can help all of us live more healthily and more sustainably. 

And STEM has a lot to offer in return! We have the coolest toys (lasers, anyone? Also rockets, a whole slew of innovative digital scanning techniques, genomic sequencers, microscopes, maps, and GPS tracking). We get to travel all over the world collecting data and sharing ideas. We also get to have an impact on real world problems, like human health, environmental challenges, preserving biodiversity, oceanic exploration, space exploration, and sustainable agricultural practices, just to name a few.

What should middle and high school girls be doing to prepare themselves for college and a STEM careers?

Get to know yourself. What do you like best about STEM (lasers? calculus? osteology?)? How can you maximize your time with those aspects? What are you really good at, and which colleges advertise that they want those skills? Find them, and sell your talents.

Never believe that you can’t do it. You have to believe in yourself, and find ways to keep believing. Forgive yourself, even if you failed that biochemistry test. How you handle tough times says way more about you than your GPA, or SAT scores. Use your life experiences to convince people you have what it takes. Being perfect is not one of the requirements, especially since no one is. We don’t expect you to be. In truth, perfect grades won’t get you far if you are so stressed out and worried about them that you can’t think about anything else anymore. I would hire a person with an imperfect GPA who has guts and ideas, over a person with a 4.0 who can only follow directions, any day of the week. So after you fail the test, cry if you need, eat ice cream, snuggle your dog, or watch a movie, then get back out there and figure out how to improve. You CAN do this. If I can, anyone can.

Take time for yourself, and don’t feel guilty about it. STEM fields are challenging, which can cause exhaustion and stress. Mental health decline (especially in college and graduate school) is a real concern, so find what makes you happy (outside of STEM) and make sure you take time to enjoy and appreciate those things. It will keep you strong in the face of criticism. Because the criticism will keep coming, trust me….in science, we call that peer-review.

Make friends with other women interested in STEM, and reach out to your mentors and teachers to ask about their experiences. You might be surprised by what they already know, and are willing to share.

What advice do you have for teachers and counselors who are assisting students prepare for a STEM major and career?

Encourage students who have an interest in art to consider science, and vice versa. In my field, for example, biological illustrators have a huge impact both historically and in contemporary times (for example, ever see the ape-men in a row, walking up through evolutionary time? Thank a scientific illustrator!). Here at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, we showcase artists’ perspectives on the natural world all the time. Science in general still need artists to help us describe the environment around us, smartphones haven’t captured the entire market. We especially need graphic designers, writers, illustrators, and videographers.

And for scientists, engaging with your creative side will improve your problem-solving skills, and relax you. Whether you use your art just for your own enjoyment, or to help you explain a scientific principle, art can help you keep perspective on your work and engage your mind with equally important cerebral investment. Many intensely logical people are also intensely creative…did you know that many successful scientists are also artists? Think Leonardo DaVinci, James Audubon, Ernst Haeckel, John Napier, Natalia Reagan, Michelle Bezanson, and Katherine Thorington. Don’t know the names? Look them up, especially the women…they’re out there, right now, making art out of science.

What career advice would you give to girls if you only have two minutes?

Ask questions. Get answers, think about them, and ask more questions. The best scientists, thinkers, and citizens never stop asking questions. You must keep ahold of that wonderment you had as a little girl; fulfilling her curiosity will inspire and sustain you over and over again.

We need you, so please take care of yourself. If you need help, speak out. And try to surround yourself with people who take care with you as well.

Lift as you climb. Women in STEM need to stick together, while we all work to make STEM an equal playing field. Unfortunately, some women learn to distrust other women in the process, and those dynamics can be devastating to self and STEM in general. Trusting yourself includes trusting other women, so believe in your senior colleagues and her experiences. Believe your junior colleagues and her aspirations. Believe your peers when they tell you what they are feeling. Men aren’t the only ones who put women down, and they certainly don’t need our help in doing so. 

Have fun! Laugh every chance you get, and enjoy the opportunities you have. Compliment the work of others, and see its contribution. Make jokes. Be silly. If you aren’t having fun, you might be doing it wrong ☺

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