Childhood Interest in Artifacts Becomes Student’s Career Choice

Nadia Waski at work at the Mead Art Museum
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

By Taylor Gilmore '15

“I was in third grade when I really became interested in paleontology,” says Nadia Waski ’14 (anthropology). “My house sits on what was once farmland in Westport, CT, so my sister and I would often find artifacts like little sherds of ceramics and nails. I was always discovering new things in my own backyard, and from then on I always found history and science fascinating.”

Because her high school had no anthropology classes, Waski found alternatives to explore her passion for paleontology and archaeology. She landed an internship her junior year at the Yale Peabody Museum and then became the first high school student accepted into the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). That year, she also had the opportunity to attend the SVP Ohio Conference.

“It was eye opening since all of the people I sat with were either graduating college or in graduate school. The lectures were a little comprehensive, but it was a great experience to view finished and unfinished products of their research, while hearing about the process,” says Waski. “They gave me advice on how to pick a college for the field, related how they started their careers, and were so welcoming.”

This conference also introduced Waski to her mentor, Dr. Briana Pobiner, of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Besides helping Waski find opportunities, she has been an advisor and supporter of Waski’s efforts in the field thus far.

UMass was a great option for Waski’s undergraduate education because the university and faculty are invested in research programs. “Going in I actually was a biology major looking forward to pursuing paleontology in graduate school. I switched halfway through my freshman year because I realized after taking a 102 archaeology class that it was more interesting for me…I then picked up a history minor and certificate program in Native American Indian studies my junior year,” says Waski.

The study of anthropology at UMass focuses on four main disciplines: archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics and physical anthropology. Focusing on the merging of these areas and the interplay of past and present, biology and culture, and symbols and actions allows students to develop an anthropological understanding of the human condition. Archaeologists specifically are interested in explaining and interpreting cultural change based upon evidence of human behaviors in the past, often found through excavation. These remains can include tools, settlements, and artistic and monumental productions.

“My favorite thing about archaeology is that I never stop learning. Endless amounts of artifacts and places to be discovered [translate into] many possibilities in terms of research. It is very much a social major too because you have to interact with different cultures as well as others in the field—and I love how the field overlaps other areas of study like history,” says Waski.

In the Anthropology Club Waski has met others who share her interests. She enjoys hiking in the mountains and attending fitness classes at the Recreation Center, and has found her job at WEB DuBois library to be a rewarding experience because she is able to help people.

“I have never found myself too consumed with academics. There has always been a balance. UMass offers a well rounded college experience for everyone, because there are so many options for any kind of student,” says Waski.

Even when school isn’t in session, Waski seeks opportunities to gain experience in archaeology. This past summer she was one of twelve students nationwide, selected from more than 250 candidates, to take part in a 10-week summer internship program in the North American Archaeology Lab in the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“The lab is situated in a tower in the museum with 360-degree views of New York City, and was used by Margaret Mead for her cultural anthropology research,” explains Waski. She worked three to four days a week with artifacts from St. Catherine’s Island in Georgia, under the supervision of the curator, Dr. David Hurst Thomas, and the lab director, Dr. Lori Pendleton.

“The twelve of us started off with basic laboratory procedures: washing, bagging, cataloging, tagging and sorting 1/8” and 1/16” fine fraction material. By the end of the first few weeks we could distinguish faunal remains, lithics, shells, historical and aboriginal ceramics, fired clay, metal and others. By the end of the program all of us understood how to read a site form and record artifact counts,” says Waski.

The interns also took part in weekly reading discussions. “We learned about the island and archaeology of the southeast through relative scientific articles,” says Waski. “The session was treated like a university program.”

Other perks included guest speakers from other areas of the museum, seeing rooms not open to the public, and behind-the-scenes tours of artifact storage and other departments.

“The experience highlighted the tedious, less-glamorous side to archaeology and demonstrated the process that ultimately leads to educating the public in a museum,” says Waski, who says it has also helped open new doors now and for her future as a graduate student. This semester she landed a job at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum where she is working on an exhibit for Pre-Columbian artifacts, opening in May.

Waski dreams of landing a position at a well-known museum while continuing her research. “After graduation I will be attending field schools until fall 2015, when I hope to attend graduate school. This year ‘off’ will allow me to explore which research questions I’d like to study.”

Taylor Gilmore '15 (communication/journalism) is a communication assistant in the Dean's Office.