Earthwatch PI: Thierra K. Nalley, Ph.D.

Thierra K. Nalley, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Anatomy
College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific, Western University of Health Sciences

Thierra’s research investigates the evolution of bipedality in the human lineage, as well as the historical patterns of positional behavior in living and fossil apes. Why our ancestors adopted such a dramatic shift in how we move and interact with the world is still a scientific mystery. Solving this mystery could help us understand the evolutionary trajectory that lead to the rise of our own species.

Why are you interested in your research focus?

I grew up in a very rural area and spent much of my free time exploring outside. I have early memories of pretending to be a scientist, taking notes on the plants and animals I observed and being captivated by the thought of strange, extinct creatures that once lived in their place. My education and research have since focused on the evolution of our own lineage, and when I first got the opportunity to do field research in Africa, I jumped at the chance. I have been hooked ever since and have participated in field projects across eastern and southern Africa for the past 15 years.

A great moment in the field

I was working with students at a field site in northern Ethiopia, and two weeks had passed with no sign of hominin (ancestral human) fossils. Everyone was very concerned that we might not find any that year. While surveying with a student, we were discussing her presentation for the conclusion of the field school and I was looking up to consider her questions as we walked along. And suddenly, she yelled, “Manna from heaven!” and I looked down to see her discovery. It was a tooth and jaw from a very large male hominin. This was the first in a series of discoveries that season, and the experience will forever remind me to keep my eyes on the ground!

  • 2013—Ph.D. Arizona State University (Biological Anthropology)
  • 2008—MA Arizona State University (Biological Anthropology)
  • 2003—BA University of Missouri, Columbia (Anthropology)
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