Featured Graduate Student: Nerli Paredes Ruvalcaba

Nerli Paredes Ruvalcaba is a second-year graduate student who received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship last year and is now preparing to conduct her pre-dissertation research. Nerli was awarded support to participate in the NSF diversity program, IDEAS, which she describes below.

Nerli ParedesI first became interested in anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside. A class with Dr. Robin Nelson introduced me to topics related to parent-child interactions. I had recently become a mother and I was extremely interested in those topics. Dr. Nelson’s class also assured me that even though biological anthropology had a dark history of institutional racism, new scholars are actively changing the discipline to be more inclusive. Hence, pursuing a degree in anthropology would allow me to ask challenging questions that would be relevant for marginalized communities. Dr. Nelson also gave me the opportunity to discuss with her research articles I would find outside of class. After reading the work of Dr. Fujita, I was attracted to the idea of studying breast milk components from a biocultural perspective.

I began working in Dr. Fujita’s Biomarker Laboratory for Anthropological Research my first semester at MSU. I helped with literature search and writing for grants submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, both of which were successfully funded. This year my role expanded to include processing whole milk to milk serum, which is then used to run assays.
During my first year I was awarded the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship. This was thanks to the advice of multiple mentors, but mainly thanks to the endless help of Dr. Fujita, who read multiple drafts and offered generous feedback. I stated that I am interested in assessing changes of iron levels in human milk from short-term to long-term breastfeeding. Research suggests that iron-deficiency is a predictor of child stunting, which is associated with impaired health and cognitive development.

Having a supportive community is imperative; as Latina in a predominately White institution it
is easy for me to feel excluded. Therefore, I try my best to make sure that I am involved in programs that are committed to working with marginalized communities. I have been involved with the Michigan Indigenous/Chicanx Community Alliance (MICCA), where I help organize culturally relevant events that bring together students, staff, and community. By creating events such as the celebration for ‘Dia De Los Muertos’, we hope to give students a sense of belonging and form a community at MSU. I have also participated in conferences and workshops targeted at emboldening students from underrepresented backgrounds to apply to graduate schools. I am also a mentor for the MSU Indigenous Youth Empowerment Program, where we help young students with academics and cultural activities.

Fortunately, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association of Physical Anthropology (AAPA) are also dedicated to increasing and supporting diversity within our discipline. This year, I have been selected to be part of a new program titled Increasing Diversity in Evolutionary Anthropology (IDEAS). This program aims to support underrepresented minority students who are committed to diversity with additional training and mentorship. The IDEAS Program provides students with a stipend to attend the 2017 AAPA meeting in New Orleans to attend a one-day workshop with mentoring groups. I will participate in discussions with other experts in the field of biological anthropology who are also interested in supporting diversity. I hope to learn to be a successful scholar while simultaneously advocating for underrepresented communities. I am also looking forward to conversations on how to become an ethical anthropologist within academia and the broader community. I am hopeful that the opportunity to learn from experts in the field of biological anthropology during my first years of graduate school will prepare me to reach my future goal of becoming a professor at a research institution.

Overall, I feel incredibly honored to have supportive mentors and in the future I plan to give back to the community that continuously supports me, and to the students of color who will come after me.

Click here to read the full newsletter.