Switching Majors, Finding Her Passion
Hayley Pratt-Stibich finally found the perfect major for studying her favorite animal.
It wasn’t easy, though. In fact, it ended up being something of a revelation, like those times when you’ve almost given up trying to find something only to have it turn up in the last place you expected it to be.
In 2014, you see, Pratt-Stibich, was in a bit of a panic. A sophomore, she had dropped her original major and was on the hunt for a new inspiration.
Then she took Introduction to Monkeys and Apes. That was the spark, and when she took Forensic Anthropology the next term, it started a fire. Here were two things she really wanted to study, all rolled up into one perfect package.
“It was cool; it was everything,” Pratt-Stibich said of her newfound major, anthropology. “I love biology and I love people—people are my favorite animals.”
Introduction to Monkeys and Apes deals with the evolutionary biology of humans’ closest relatives and how they are both similar and different from people. Forensic Anthropology has nothing to do with crime-scene investigation and instead offers an introduction to evolutionary medicine, a relatively new field that traces the evolution of disease to better understand both its source and treatment.
Now she’s happily studying biological anthropology, anticipating a career that combines research with forensic investigation and humanitarian work. She sees herself identifying the victims of natural disasters and wartime violence, helping put a face on the nameless dead and giving families a chance at closure.
“I’ve always had a love for volunteering,” Pratt-Stibich said. “Just the idea that I could combine science with giving back like that was what put me over.”
At its core, anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. Biological anthropology is one of four branches of the discipline—the others are sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology—that looks at how humans evolve and adapt, the cause and nature of disease and the biological processes that shape growth and development, among other things.
Its focus on evolution, in part through the study of other primates, was the magnet that drew Pratt-Stibich in, and that first course on monkeys and apes swung her academic compass around and made anthropology her pole star.
Each new class in anthropology replaced the previous as her favorite. Last year it was forensic anthropology. Earlier this year human evolution and human attraction were tied. She just took a class on human osteology—that’s bones—and calls it “the best class I’ve ever taken.”
Even the time she’s spent in an anthropology lab sorting shells and other materials from a coastal dig—grunt work to more seasoned scientists—was exciting.
“Everything about anthropology is really cool,” Pratt-Stibich said. “I’m pretty geeky about it.”
She just got her passport, which means this summer she’s off to the remote Pacific island nation of Palau to work with Scott Fitzpatrick, a UO associate professor of anthropology, excavating remains and artifacts from a 3,000-year-old cave site. She’ll be one of the people digging up all those fascinating little finds instead of seeing them for the first time in the lab.
“It’s really exciting,” she said of the trip. “I could never have imagined myself doing this, but I’m so ridiculously happy.”
That’s something Pratt-Stibich couldn’t have said at the start of her sophomore year, when she realized her first love—physics—wasn’t the match made in the heavens she thought it would be.
She could graduate in 2016, but thanks to her scholarships—Pratt-Stibich is a recipient of Pathway Oregon and Gates Millennium scholarships—she plans to spend an extra year at the UO so she can pick up a minor in biology to boost her chances of getting into a top graduate school.
“One of the great things about the UO is the fact that it has so much to offer,” Pratt-Stibich said. “I don’t think I could have made this transition anywhere else.”
—By Greg Bolt, College of Arts and Sciences
—Photos by Charlie Litchfield, Advancement