The following faculty Q&A was submitted by the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Faculty Advocacy Committee, a committee of the Faculty Senate. Pete Brown, chair of the anthropology department, wrote the introduction.
Since joining the anthropology program in 2007, Dr. Stephanie Spehar has brought exciting new perspectives and possibilities for students. Before coming to UW Oshkosh, she worked with zoos (Los Angeles, New York) and conservation organizations (Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society) and in a variety of other settings.
Dr. Spehar’s research focuses on primates — monkeys and apes. She travels the world — including such places as Ecuador, Costa Rica and Borneo — to better understand their behavior and ecology. Engaging and enthusiastic, she shares her experiences with colleagues and students alike. If you want to hear a story of scientific adventure, read on.
How did you find your way to UW Oshkosh?
After I got my Ph.D., I did some short-term research projects with The Nature Conservancy in Indonesia. This gave me some time to think about the type of long-term job I wanted, and I decided I wanted to do research but also be able to teach classes that I cared about and interact closely with students. UW Oshkosh is a school where we do exactly those things. At first, I was wary of living in Wisconsin — I grew up in California, and I was afraid of the winters — but I’ve grown to appreciate the change of seasons here. I’m always happy when spring finally arrives, though!
Why did you choose to go into your field?
I’ve always loved the natural world and been fascinated by it; a big part of this is probably due to the fact that I spent a lot of time outdoors, camping and hiking with my family when I was a kid. I also always loved to ask the question “WHY?” which is probably what led me to science. By age 10, I had decided that I wanted to spend my life studying animal behavior — I was drawn in by the diversity and beauty of the animal world.
I started volunteering at the Los Angeles Zoo when I was 13, and by the time I was 16, I was working with their research department, studying chimpanzee behavior. I fell in love with the chimpanzees — working with animals that are so similar to humans and yet so different is fascinating — and this is what led me to anthropology and to my interest in applying what we can learn from primates to understanding human beings.
I went on to get a Ph.D. in physical anthropology, with a specialty in primatology, which has allowed me to study wild primates all over the world. I also wanted a job that would allow me to travel and spend time outdoors. Primatology fit the bill in that regard too.
What is your favorite thing about UW Oshkosh?
Two things, actually. I love that fact that my job at UW Oshkosh allows me to be surrounded by so many interesting, dynamic people doing interesting things. I never get tired of hearing about what my colleagues are up to here. I also enjoy teaching the students. Generally, they take their education seriously and have a sincere desire to learn. They are truly open to new information and ways of thinking. I am always impressed by how much they balance — school, work and family.
Also, students here are honest. If they are interested or like something, their enthusiasm is boundless, but they will also let you know if they don’t like something! They don’t fake it, and as an instructor, I appreciate that.
What is the professional accomplishment of which you are most proud?
In the past few years, I’ve started doing more applied conservation research. For example, a couple recent publications are about methods used to count elusive animals, like apes, for the purposes of monitoring their populations — crucial information for endangered species like orangutans and gorillas. I love doing this kind of work because it has scientific merit, but it also offers a practical benefit by providing information that is useful to wildlife management and conservation. To contribute to these efforts is very gratifying.
What leadership or service activities are you involved in?
On campus, I am the academic advisor to the Anthropology Club. I love the opportunity to work closely with students outside the classroom. I am also involved in campus sustainability efforts, a crucial component of preserving the environment. Last year, I helped organize several events for Earth Week, and I am part of efforts to better integrate sustainability into the teaching practices of faculty at the University.
Beyond campus, I act as a scientific advisor to Paso Pacífico, a nonprofit that is dedicated to preserving wildlife in Nicaragua. Last year, I traveled to Nicaragua for Paso Pacífico and conducted an educational workshop on primate conservation and monitoring for Nicaraguan biologists. This is something I hope to do again soon, and I am also trying to connect the nonprofit with student groups and other organizations on campus. I admire their dedication to helping both wildlife and human populations in Nicaragua.
What is the most common misperception about what you do?
People often seem to have the perception that professors just teach a few days a week and get lots of time off. While we do have a good deal of flexibility, if you choose to be a professor, your work becomes your life; it’s not just 9 to 5. I don’t know a single professor who doesn’t work more than full time on teaching and research! And this continues beyond the school year. I’m away from Wisconsin most of the summer, but I’m usually not on vacation — I’m doing field research with primates in the tropics, which is often very challenging.
But I’m not complaining. I love doing this field work. The reason we spend so much time on our work is because we are so passionate about what we do.
What is the most exciting project you are working on right now?
I’m starting a long-term project in Borneo, examining how three species of primate (orangutans, gibbons and red leaf monkeys) respond to poor-quality habitat and food scarcity. A big part of this project is examining the chemical composition of primate foods in the lab, which will allow us to understand the nutritional quality of their diets and why they make the food choices they do.
I hope that my research can help us learn more about the threatened species of Borneo and can contribute to conserving its forests and wildlife. My field site is in a protected forest, and I can support this important project by working with and employing local people. This project also offers lots of opportunities for student involvement. I already have students working on techniques for analyzing plant samples in the lab, and I plan to take students with me to Borneo to help collect data.
How does what you research help you to be an effective teacher?
Science and other academic disciplines are like a conversation, an exchange of ideas about why the world is the way it is. Doing original research, and publishing that research, allows me to take part in that conversation. My goal as a teacher is to help students think critically about their world and to expand their views and experiences of the world. I want them to understand that science is dynamic — explanations and ideas are challenged and revised and changed to better describe the world we live in.
Students need to develop the skills that will allow them to make informed decisions about what (and what not) to believe. If I’m not fully involved in the “conversation” that’s going on in my discipline and my own views and understandings become static and unchanging, I’m not going to be able to teach them these things.
Describe some ways your department serves Northeastern Wisconsin.
Anthropology attempts to understand what it means to be human from many different perspectives, and as a result, the members of our small department do lots of different things. We provide archaeological consulting services, including to local law enforcement agencies identifying bones from possible crime scenes. I offer public lectures about how our primate past influences our behavior and biology today.
Our cultural anthropologists are consulted by the local news media for commentary and expertise about local and world events; much of their research (on diverse topics such as gender, globalization, immigration, post-conflict reconciliation and Native American art) has local implications.
Finally, the most important way that we serve Northeastern Wisconsin is by helping hundreds of Wisconsin students each year develop a better understanding of human diversity, the complex processes that shape the lives of people around the world and how we can apply this understanding to solve many of the problems facing humanity today.
Tell us about your family.
I am engaged to be married. My fiancé Paul and I are getting married in January, and I’m very excited about that. My extended family pretty much all live in Colorado, which is where I was born. My family immigrated to Colorado from Croatia nearly 100 years ago and settled in a little mountain town, Crested Butte, where they were coal miners and cattle ranchers. We still have a family reunion in this town every year, where we follow Croatian tradition and roast two whole lambs over an open fire. I’m very close to my family and try to attend this reunion whenever I can. My parents and my sister Christine live in Los Angeles, which is where I spent most of my childhood, and I visit them whenever I can.
What are your hobbies?
I am a biking enthusiast. It’s my favorite form of exercise. One of the things I love about Wisconsin is the number of great rural roads; I’ve seen some beautiful parts of the state from my bike. I also love to hike and camp. This summer I did a three-day backpacking trip in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado, and I also visited the Boundary Waters for the first time and did some canoeing. It was beautiful. I’d love to go back. I also practice yoga, whenever my busy schedule allows.
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