Grantee Receives 2012 L’Oreal “For Women in Science” Fellowship

We are very proud to note that a former Wenner-Gren grantee, Dr. Erin Marie Williams, currently a postdoctoral fellow at The George Washington University, has been named one of five recipients of the 2012 L’Oreal For Women in Science Fellowship, awarded annually to outstanding women scientists making groundbreaking advances in their respective fields. In the wake of the award, we asked Williams about her reaction to receiving this honor and how it will aid her research.


Could you tell us a bit about what you work on? Which Wenner-Gren grant did you receive?

I’m continuing to work on the biomechanics of stone tool production, and expended to use of those tools, as well. We are in the midst of publishing our findings on manual pressure distribution during various types of stone tool use, following up on the results we published on pressure distribution during stone tool production. Next I’ll start writing up results from experiments we conducted this summer looking at the effects different raw materials have on aspects of tool production and use. We collected the data at Ileret, Kenya using some of the same raw materials our early human ancestors used, so I’m fairly excited about this set of experiments. We were also able to collect from a large sample size, the largest data set I’ve compiled thus far, which is another exciting aspect of the experiment.

This year I will continue looking at the effects of raw material on upper limb biomechanics, but I’ll be back in a motion capture laboratory rather than the field. Specifically, how do experienced knappers respond to different raw material types with distinct sets of material properties?

I received one of the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grants while I was a PhD student in the Hominid Paleobiology Program at GWU, which enabled me to collect the first manual pressure and force data on stone tool production. We recently published the results of that initial study in JHE. Since then I have used the equipment obtained with this grant over and over again. I took the system to Kenya over the summer and I’m planning to take it to a few knap-ins next summer. It has made a huge impact on the research I have been able to conduct.


What was your reaction when you found out that you had been awarded the Fellowship?

The two women from L’Oreal that do much of the leg work for the L’Oreal grant called me together while I was on a Megabus from Pittsburgh returning to DC. I answered the phone even though I didn’t recognize the number because I was expecting a call from NYC, which matched the zip code on caller ID. When they told me they were calling from L’Oreal I initially thought that it was very kind of them, if not rather taxing, to call all of the applications that were not selected and tell them personally that others were chosen. So I was more than a little surprised to hear that I was one of the five. Surprised and extremely honored. The program that L’Oreal runs for women in science is amazing and I feel so fortunate to now be a part of it. Not only will the fellowship enable me to conduct research about which I’m very excited, but the series of workshops they put together for us were hands down the most useful professional conduct and guidance workshops I have ever attended. The people that run L’Oreal for Women in Science are serious about giving women the tools we need to succeed. I am very fortunate to now be able to work with them.


What are some possible next steps for your research? What are you excited to tackle next, and how will the Fellowship assist you?

With the funds from L’Oreal and from my NSF postdoctoral fellowship I am investigating early human decision making abilities as evidenced by the manner in which modern humans make and use stone tools and through the stone tools our ancestors left behind. Given the adaptive nature of stone tool behaviors, it follows that the anatomical changes and cognitive capabilities underlying tool strategies were subject to refinement by natural and cultural selection, and that they represent the optimal response available within a given ecological context. Within this frame work, raw materials selected for stone tool production may conform to the most physically (i.e., biomechanically) efficient option, such as the minimization of work required for production. Additionally, stone tool assemblages at any given archaeological site should represent the optimal strategy that was available to hominins within that specific context .

In order to determine whether this is the case, and to better understand the decision-making processes underlying early humans’ selection of particular materials for technological behaviors, we need to understand the variables relevant to the costs and benefits of stone tool behaviors. The selection of appropriate raw stone material for tool production was one set of challenges early hominins faced in regard to stone tool behaviors. Selecting a raw material meant balancing the costs and benefits of a number of variables, including the energy required for making a tool from a given material and other physical costs incurred by the tool maker and/or user.  Though frequently discussed, physical costs as a function of raw material type have yet to be systematically investigated. Further, we currently lack an expedient method for quantifying these physical costs imposed by various raw materials during stone tool behaviors. Therefore, we also lack a comprehensive means of determining whether or not early hominins consciously selected raw materials that would have offered the most efficient, or most effective, means of producing and using tools. This type of cost-benefit analysis is a key characteristic of modern human decision-making processes and understanding when this ability evolved is critical to our understanding of the archaeological record and to the evolution of human cognitive abilities.
Through the integration of fracture mechanics and biomechanics theory and experiments, my goals are to 1) investigate aspects of the fracture behavior of five raw materials representative of those commonly used in the Paleolithic for stone tool behaviors and 2) test hypotheses and assumptions regarding the effects raw materials have on upper limb biomechanics during stone tool production and use, in order to 3) develop an expedient method for evaluating raw material quality as a function of the “physical costs” each material places on the body during production and use.

After my postdoc and fellowships are completed, I plan to use the equipment purchased with these funds to investigate chimp tool production and use in the wild. This project is still very much in the works, but I am hopeful that it will actually occur.