A lifelong curiosity about the inner workings of humankind brought Alexandra Sveshnikova '25 to the SUNY Potsdam Department of Anthropology. The fire of that curiosity will be fueled by a research trip this summer to Kenya, where she will be part of a cutting-edge examination of our origins and the history that preceded human tenure on Earth.
Alexandra is joining SUNY Potsdam Associate Professor of Biological Anthropology Nasser Malit and more than 20 researchers and experts from around the globe at several sites in the remote Turkana Basin—part of the Turkana Miocene Project to understand how climate change shaped evolution from 23 to five million years ago.
“I am beyond excited to learn and work alongside experts in the field. Participating in this type of fieldwork will help me immensely with my future endeavors.”
The project, funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Frontier Research in Earth Science Program, examines how climate shifts and tectonics impacted Miocene ecosystems and shaped the emergence of human ancestors and their primate relatives. Following fieldwork, Alexandra will accompany Nasser to the city of Nairobi for laboratory work curating their discoveries. As a final project, she will compare data of modern primates with those she has collected from the field.
Alexandra will contribute to an ambitious project that is both multinational and multidisciplinary. It encompasses field, lab and modeling studies covering tectonics, vegetation, climate and evolution—all with the goal of creating a model of evolution integrated with crustal lift data from the region.
While geologists chart the changes in the earth, a paleoclimate group will examine minerals, rocks, teeth and plant matter for clues to changes in rainfall, vegetation and climate patterns due to crustal lifting of the East African Rift. Nasser will focus on paleontology to link these changes to shifts in prehuman mammalian communities, which could shed light on the question of why some evolved into human lineages while others led to modern primates.
“I chose Potsdam primarily because of the strength of its anthropology department. Not many schools have an anthropology department and archaeological studies program.”
“Alexandra will work with various scientists to learn the geology of the basin,” Nasser explained. “She will also accompany the climate people to learn how data in this field is derived, and will work with the paleontologists in recovering and documenting fossils. After the end of fieldwork, her focus will be on assessing the molar sizes of various primates to look for patterns in the evolution of the primate lineages. She will also help with the curation of fossils from the field and work briefly at the Kenya National Museums in Nairobi to collect more dental data to complete her study. This will be a remarkable experience for her career.”
Alexandra, who is pursuing dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in anthropology and psychology, is preparing for her trip by working in SUNY Potsdam laboratories to examine molars in ancient humans and non-humans for clues to evolutionary patterns. Funded by SUNY Potsdam's Kilmer Research Grant, Alexandra will have lodging and food expenses offset during her trip to Kenya.
“Teeth are the most common specimens found in paleoanthropological fieldwork, which is why I’m focusing on them this semester,” she explained.
Alexandra has always been fascinated by the natural world and its diversity. But it wasn’t until she took her first anthropology course at SUNY Potsdam that she glimpsed a possible life path—one where she could look for answers to nagging questions about human behavior.
“Here was a discipline that tackles what it means to be human, what it is that connects all cultures across all times and places,” she reflected. “I chose Potsdam primarily because of the strength of its anthropology department. Not many schools have an anthropology department and archaeological studies program.”
Alexandra’s near-term aspirations don’t end in Africa. She has also applied to spend the entire coming academic year studying in Greece, hoping to see the world through the lens of other cultures. She credits some of her enthusiasm to “incredible” professors who are accessible and whose willingness to work with her directly enriches her research and projects.
“When meeting with a different professor this semester, I began excitedly talking about this upcoming summer, to which he responded, ‘You realize you’ll be participating in groundbreaking research, right?’ That’s when the magnitude of this hit me,” Alexandra said. “Working on this project will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Article by Bret Yager, Photos by Jason Hunter