May 2016 graduate Sabrina Shirazi’s love for studying the past’s environment and its inhabitants was solidified during a freshman year anthropology lab at the University of Maryland. Yet even after one completed field school, being named a lab technician and obtaining an internship with the Smithsonian Center for Conservation Genomics (CCG), sophomore Shirazi still felt like something was missing.

“At the Smithsonian Center for Conservation Genomics (CCG), I began using DNA from ancient bones to study how humans have influenced animals,” Shirazi explained.  “I quickly became impressed with the power DNA has in informing us about past processes and began to shift my focus to studying human evolution using DNA from ancient human bones.”

The next 2.5 years spent at the Smithsonian would cause Shizari’s focus to shift once more, inspiring her to add a new area of interest to her existing anthropology major and archaeology minor; an independent study.

“Over time at the Smithsonian I began to further understand the field and was extensively exposed to issues and successes in conservation,” Shirazi said. “My focus then began to shift towards understanding how humans have shaped the histories of wild animals. This could take the form of extinctions, dispersals, domestications and so on.”

With these interests in mind, Shirazi declared her own “Hominin Evolution” major, taking courses in genetics, evolution, anthropology and computer programming.

“There are not opportunities in the department to develop computer programming skills but I found a workshop that the department supported my involvement in,” Shirazi recalled. “From then on, I continuously saw how supportive the department is of their students’ success, even if it means supporting them in something that the department at UMD may not be able to help with.”

While serving as the Vice President and then President of the Anthropology Students Association (ASA), Shirazi was also involved in Archaeology in Annapolis, the club lacrosse team, the quiddich team and internships at CCG and the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Despite her many commitments, Shirazi yet found time for fun, listing spending time with friends picnicking on the mall and watching movies on stormy days in residence hall rooms as some of her favorite UMD memories.

“My dream job is to be a professor at a university where I can have my own laboratory where my students can use different methods to study past human-animal interactions,” Shirazi said. “An even bigger dream is to develop a lab that is well respected in the scientific community and is trusted in informing conservation management.”

Taking the next steps to achieve these goals, Shirazi will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz with Dr. Beth Shapiro, a researcher whose work with using ancient and modern DNA to study human influence on animals has always “impressed” and “interested” Shirazi’s own genetic research.

“Though the field is new, it is extremely powerful in informing us about how past populations have changed and over what period they changed, allowing us to infer why and how they may have changed in this way,” Shirazi explained. “This field that I am continuing into can inform us if and how humans have already influenced the environment, and this information can be used in both judging what we should do now in terms of conservation, and providing some basis to predict the future for certain organisms.




Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future: Alumna combines interests to pursue unique field of study