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Anthropologist and Archaeologist Sophie Miller reflects on Springs and her love of learning.

When I first started WSC, as a member of Atea house, I was a cripplingly anxious teenager from Titirangi. I had never really gone into the city before, never been on a bus before and never had to make friends from scratch. WSC provided me with the push I needed to actually live outside of my box.

It was where I realized that I liked being a student and that my actions would have ripple effects for the rest of my academic career. I became a student who was recognized for my efforts and achievements every year, with teachers who supported and nurtured that drive.

When my mother was sick and dying during the end of my year 13, I had teachers and friends who pulled me through and kept me going, who would give their time after school to make sure I was ready to make that trip home.

It became an escape for me where I could focus on my love of learning. It became somewhere I was proud of attending. To this day, people my age make fun of WSC as the ‘druggie school’ and I vehemently defend my school experience. I am an exceptional student, who has achieved many of my life goals, becoming Dr. Miller is just the next step in that, and I own my intellectual roots. There are few who walk away from a conversation about high school doubting WSC as a place of learning even without the uniform.

I have always considered myself to be a good student. It is part of how I identify and challenge myself. I love learning, I believe it should be something everyone has access to, not simply because it will facilitate getting a better job or a job at all, but because expanding one’s mind really is a truly human pursuit. One of the things you encounter with anthropology is a sense of who you are in a wider world and how our life experiences differ person to person.

In terms of my time after Springs, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts (double major in Ancient History and Anthropology) in 2013. I started to get involved in archaeology and working in the laboratory at UoA in my third and final year – firstly with the field school and then later as a volunteer assistant, teaching students who were following me and working over the summer.

I was told very early on that it was not enough to be a specialist in this day and age, you needed to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ too. So that is what I did. I have worked on all manner of archaeology, in New Zealand, the Southern Cook Islands, the Hawaiian Islands, the Caribbean, and as of next year I hope to start working in West Africa. Within this work I have looked at pottery, stone artefacts and tools, landscape surveys and animal and human bones. This latter work is what I was the most drawn to and what I am currently doing now.

In 2014, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts Honours (first class) in Anthropology, studying past human-animal interactions in the Southern Cook Islands. This work was actually published this year in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. I graduated with my Master of Arts (also First Class) in Anthropology in 2015, also looking at human and animal bones, but this time with a focus on identifying species based on their bone microstructure – so if you had a tiny fragment of bone could you figure out what animal you had.

At the end of 2014/beginning of 2015, I moved to Honolulu to work in Cultural Resource Management Archaeology (CRM – private contracting archaeology). I had never intended to take a break in my studies – I was actually worried that leaving for more than 6 months would make it too difficult to get back into the habit of being a full-time student – but I actually think the two years I took off were the most valuable to my own growth and learning, and I now encourage all of my students to consider something similar.

In 2016, I was accepted into the University of Oregon with a First-Year Fellowship to start my PhD studies. Part of the full-funding in this program is teaching as a Graduate Teaching Fellow for the seven years you are working on your doctorate.

During these last five years, I presented at several conferences around the world including in Argentina and the US, and hopefully will be presenting my current work in Turkey in September. I am also working on a fossil hyaena from about 5-7 million years ago in Kyrgyzstan with a few palaeontologists. While this unfortunately won’t be sending me to Kyrgyzstan, it will hopefully make it to the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology so watch that space!

My PhD study – which is taking me to West Africa – is cat domestication. In spite of the enduring relationship between cats and humans, cat domestication is still very poorly understood. I am hoping to start to put together more pieces to this puzzle and the arrival of the domestic cat into West Africa is completely unknown. Much of the African past is omitted from history because there are persistent colonial narratives that are rooted in the concept of a static African past.  In fact, it is likely one of the least researched parts of world, in spite of a long history of human-animal relationships and an even longer lived human presence.

Part of my work here at the University of Oregon is also public outreach and education. For next year, I am organizing an archaeological booth at ‘Meet a Scientist’ day for high school students and I keep a blog called the ‘Avid Anthropologist’ where I write about zooarchaeology, being a female scientist, and my field experiences for aspiring researchers and interested people.

I feel very strongly about representing women in science, because getting young girls and women into science is a key part of our future. Especially in the USA in this day and age.

Source of Inspiration:

As cliché as it seems, I would probably say my mother. She passed away about a week before my 18th birthday, and about a month before I started university. Because of this, there is a lot I could not share with her in my experiences, but she is always at the back of my mind. She would always say there is always time to go back and do something, so it is okay if you don’t get things right first time. While I feel there is a sad irony to those words, I strive to both accept that there is time to try everything and so making mistakes is just being human, and also realize our time is finite and one should make the most of experiences and opportunities as they come. I think the last decade of my life has reflected this mentality.

Parting thought…

One thing I would like to share is how I feel as a kiwi in the US. I am the only kiwi that I know of in Eugene – although it is a small town. Everyone hears my accent and usually tells me (it’s never a guess) I’m English or Australian. I laugh, correct them and then insist they visit NZ at least once in their life. Usually people are very excited to talk to someone from NZ, particularly asking if I’ve been to Hobbiton, or ‘where those LOTR movies were filmed’. They get excited when I say I have climbed Mt Doom. I am the ‘cheeky kiwi’ in the Department where often my jokes or words are not understood because ‘why would I put groceries in a boot?’ While everyone has always been warm and welcoming to me as an outsider, I haven’t been back in NZ in nearly four years and I feel the distance. You know you should visit home when a surprise package of burger rings makes your month.

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