Department of Anthropology marks 50 years at the University of Alberta

Anthropology faculty, staff and students celebrate milestone anniversary with a full year of festivities

Angelique Rodrigues - 14 January 2016

The Department of Anthropology is marking its 50th anniversary in 2016 with a year of events to celebrate the diversity and innovation of their faculty, students and alumni.

On Jan. 8, 2016, the department kicked off its anniversary festivities with a party on the 13th floor of Tory and the unveiling of a new display featuring their accomplishments over the last 50 years.

Faculty of Arts Dean Lise Gotell was on hand for the unveiling, and congratulated those in attendance for their dedication and hard-work.

"It's a department filled with leading experts and passionate people," she said.

People like associate professor Helen Vallianatos, who focused her doctoral research on food consumption during pregnancy in New Delhi, India and came to the Faculty of Arts after completing her postdoctoral research on the experiences and needs of Arabic and South Asian immigrants.

From her contributions to the field of Anthropology, you'd never guess Vallianatos almost became a biologist. She was just finishing her biology degree at McMaster University when she signed up for a human evolution class on a whim.

"At the time I was really science oriented, but Anthropology provided this different perspective. I fell in love and ended up double majoring," she said. "Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most science-y of the social sciences, so it's a great balance."

Vallianatos went on to do her grad studies in Anthropology at the University of Oregon and has been working at the University of Alberta for the last decade.

Her research focuses on living peoples - issues like how migration affects peoples' perspectives on health and wellness and in turn, their food and health practices, how cultural ideas on food and body affect how people eat, and how family foodways are negotiated and formulated among both immigrant and non-immigrant families.

Not exactly what you imagined an Anthropologist studying? That's because not all anthropologists study ancient bones (though some do, and it's awesome). Vallianatos is a sociocultural anthropologist - she studies the anthropology of food, gender, body, health, mobilities and immigration, among other subjects.

"My own career has been focused on applying anthropology to today," she explained. "I work on peoples' health and wellbeing - studying peoples' food practices, health behaviours and how they conceptualize their bodies." Her work can impact our society, as her research contributes to the information policy-makers use in designing and evaluating programs and services.

There are three other fields of anthropology - linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology and perhaps the most well known - archaeology.

During their undergraduate studies, students in UAlberta's Department of Anthropology take courses in all four areas - known as the four-field approach- in order to get a broad sense of discipline. But, that's not offered in every university.

"As a student here you can get a really well rounded understanding of Anthropology in your undergrad," says Professor and Chair in the Department of Anthropology Pamela Willoughby (MA '76). "If you want to know what makes humans 'human', why ISIS exists, why people are different (or more importantly not different), how to preserve a dying language, where we come from and where we might be headed - you can study that in anthropology."

Willoughby would know. Like Vallianatos, she didn't set out to be an anthropologist - but happened upon her calling during her undergrad degree.

"I started out wanting to study history, but then I realised the kind of history I liked best, was ethno-history and I could do that in anthro," said Willoughby, who went on to pursue a Masters in African Stone Age/Palaeolithic archaeology from the U of A in the mid-70's - and later a PhD from UCLA.

She's been teaching and researching here since 1985, and was recently commended by the university for 30 years of service.

Her fieldwork in Tanzania, studying when and how modern humans emerged from Africa to colonize the globe, has made international headlines.

She says field research is an integral component of anthropology and a major draw for new students.

"The thing about anthropology is, you can't just sit on a computer - you have to interact, observe, learn and understand," she said. "For students who want to travel, or work in a foreign country, or work with a foreign aid group or government or with immigrant populations - you can gain the necessary experience in anthro."

Hands-on learning experience is one of the criteria that drew recent Anthropology grad Julia Rudko (BA '14) to the program.

"It's a science, and it's a science you can hold in your hands," said the 23-year-old biological anthropology major. "That's what appealed to me - being able to touch, hold and feel what you are studying."

Rudko works as an assistant in UAlberta Museums and Collections and says Anthropology changed her outlook on life. Through her studies, she gained the necessary skills to pursue her dream job.

But it wasn't an easy road. Rudko's family and friends were far from convinced she'd chosen the right career path.

"There were a lot of people who questioned what I'd be able to do with an Anthropology degree - my own father told me I should have been a gym teacher," she laughed. "But, I've been able to prove those people wrong, take my education and use it in a very practical sense."

She hopes her story can inspire future students to follow their hearts and pursue what interests them.

"Whether it's Anthropology or Sociology or acting or painting, if you love it - you will find a way to make it work," she said. "Find what interests you, and go for it."

The department has announced it's 50th Speaker Series lineup for the year. The first lecture in the series will be given by Jack Ives: distinguished professor and Executive Director of the Institute of Prairie Archaeology.

Ives will tackle the topic of The Ninth Clan--Exploring Apachean Migration in the Promontory Caves, Utah on Wednesday January 20 at 7 p.m. in the Telus Centre at the U of A.

Willoughby is also scheduled in the series. She'll present her work - Going modern: Investigating the earliest modern humans in Tanzania - at the Telus Centre on Feb. 3.

For the full list of events, visit the Department 50th Anniversary website - Anthropology: Sharing our Stories.

Anthropology Facts:

- The Department of Anthropology was constituted as a separate entity when it became independent from the Department of Sociology on August 1st, 1966.
- In 1963 the joint Department of Sociology and Anthropology was established with three anthropologists; Charles Brandt, Alan Bryan and Ruth Gruhn. Gruhn was actually able to attend this year's 50th Anniversary launch, and was granted the honour of cutting the cake.
- In 1966, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta consisted of just seven Faculty, one staff, six honours students and 14 students in the MA program.
- Today there are 16 full-time Faculty members, with a total of 42 academics associated with the department.
- There are six administrative and two technical staff.
- The PhD program had 31 PhD's and MA students numbered 18 in the 2014-15 academic year.

- Anthropology undergraduate majors and minors total 293 with eight in honours programs.
- In 2014-15 there were 83 courses taught for a total enrolment of 2,166 students.