Below the Skin with Nina Jablonski
Nina Jablonski wants to use science for social good.
The anthropologist and paleobiologist is the Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at Penn State University, where she studies the way Old World primates, including humans, evolved.
Today she continues to go on expeditions to southwestern China and Ethiopia to search for fossils. Her research on skin color won her recognition from WINGS as a 2010 Fellow, and that work has deepened in the last nine years, she told WINGS.
Nina works with scholars in the U.S. and South Africa to study how evolution and human skin color relates to the concept of race.
“My original focus was on biological evolution of skin color, but that led naturally to the consequences of skin color for health and physical wellbeing and its impact on our social lives,” she said. “You can imagine it’s been a research program that’s grown many different branches and tendrils, and basically I just go with it.”
A person’s skin color is determined by how much of the pigment melanin is in that person’s skin. And that amount of melanin relates to the intensity of sunlight where that person’s ancestors evolved. Melanin is like built-in sunscreen, Nina explained.
But race can have wider implications, such as the discrimination someone may experience because of that person’s skin color.
One of Nina’s tenets of doing this work effectively is to stay away from using loaded language. For example, the words “white” or “black,” in reference to skin color, carry an enormous amount of social baggage, she said. Instead she refers to “lightly-pigmented” or “darkly pigmented” people.
If you take out words that have emotional connotations, people have easier time thinking about the underlying concepts, she said.
Nina now also leads development of an educational outreach effort through a genetics and genealogy curriculum project. The purpose is to get kids and teens interested in science by allowing them to study themselves through the study of their own DNA and personal family histories. This project was featured in the PBS webside series, “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings.”
“One of the greatest things for me is kids who look different from one another say, ‘We’re so similar,’” she said. “And kids who look similar will compare and say, ‘Oh I would have never thought you’d be different.’”
Nina also hopes the program will help to eliminate implicit biases, unconsciously held beliefs about a group of people, by teaching kids about the deceptiveness of physical traits. Implicit biases are not instinctive, but learned as children. The curriculum helps kids understand why humans look different from one another.
“Humans are tremendously similar once we get below the skin,” Nina said.