Student Finds Possibilities in Research - and in Herself

By Aya Jasmine Abdul-Karim

aya jasmine     Before coming to UCSC, I was unaware of the potential I had as a student researcher. Since a young age, diet, health and wellbeing have been a huge interest of mine. While taking Assistant Professor Vicky Oelze’s ANTH110F: Evolution of Human Diet course, I knew that studying diet in a quantifiable manner was something that I wanted to be part of. After expressing my interest to work with her and after a few failed research projects, Vicky pushed me to write a senior thesis on the dietary reconstruction of two Inca sites in the Cusco Valley of Peru via stable isotope analysis.

     I thought, “Me, Aya, writing a thesis?”  It was something I never considered I had the capability to do. But I took the opportunity to be an undergraduate scientist and spent the summer between my junior and senior year studying and learning how to prepare teeth for analysis with graduate student Eden Washburn’s guidance.

     As a senior, I decided that taking the yearlong senior thesis course with Lars Fehren-Schmitz would be a good option. The support I received from him and my classmates Kelsea Ranks, Savannah Dawson and Gabriel Granado was an enormous help in the process of writing my thesis. We gave each other advice on how to make our writing better. The group was an outlet to express our frustrations and progress, something that I am thankful to have been a part of.

     The support I received from the Anthropology Department encouraged me to apply for the Koret Undergraduate Research Scholarship. Hoping and praying I would receive it with Vicky as my mentor, I received the scholarship and confirmation that I, Aya, was a student just as capable as anyone, and that I can have a future in research. The secret, I learned, is to just put yourself out there. Ask questions, in research and daily life, that help narrow down your interests while keeping your mind open. Ask questions that project you towards the next step. Believe that you are just as capable as anyone. Believe that possibilities presented to you make you limitless.

     Working in the lab, I was humbled and quickly discovered that strict note-taking and observance of the methodology is crucial to scientific research. One must always be aware of and remind themselves of the next step to produce data that is accurate. Communication with the principal investigator and labmates is important as well, to keep the process as worry-free as possible. I learned that articulation, patience and dedication are real skills that scientists need to be successful in their research. Throughout the process of my thesis, my respect for researchers increased tenfold.

     Although my data is still being processed by the mass spectrometers at the UCSC Stable Isotope Laboratory, I am excited to produce a paper that is as fair to the scientific method as possible. I hope to share data that is accurate and honest and I hope that my thesis will produce a conclusion and conversation that will help in the understanding of the context the Inca people lived in. I hope that my conclusions will shed light on what foods these people were eating and allow us to understand Inca society and the role the sites had in Peruvian history.


Jasmine stands with fellow Koret Scholar Gabriel Granado.

Above, she models safety gear while working in the Primate Ecology and Molecular Anthropology Lab.