Katelyn DiBenedetto’15 MA Anthropology, ’18 PhD Anthropology
Graduate College Alumna of the Year
You know those kids who become fascinated by a vocation at an exceptionally young age, latch on to it, and never let go? Katelyn DiBenedetto was one such kid.
Enthralled by the ocean for as long as she can remember, DiBenedetto voraciously read books on marine life, visited aquariums and beaches whenever the opportunity arose, and tended (often unsuccessfully) to saltwater fish in her home tank. And as her oceanic knowledge grew, she would chat up anyone within earshot about just how important healthy oceans are to human and planetary survival.
There was absolutely zero doubt in her mind: DiBenedetto was going to be a marine biologist.
That is, until she enrolled in a pesky advanced-placement chemistry class in high school.
“It was a disaster,” she says. “I thought my career as a scientist was over before it had even begun.”
It took some time, but DiBenedetto eventually got over the dream-crushing impact of that AP chemistry class and recalibrated her career options. She had more than a passing interest in people, cultures, and languages, so upon arriving at the University at Albany in New York, she began thinking about a career in social sciences or humanities.
Just one small problem: DiBenedetto didn’t know where to begin.
“I took classes on history, political science, international relations, and religion in my first year of undergraduate studies,” she says. “I loved them all, but none felt quite right. But that changed when I took an anthropology class. From that first class, I knew I wanted to pursue anthropology as a major.”
That epiphany ultimately led DiBenedetto to UNLV, first for her graduate degree and then her doctorate. Unsurprisingly, her anthropological research was loosely tied to her first love: marine life. For instance, her dissertation examined land and water management strategies on the island of Cyprus “during one of the most transformative periods in human history: the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.”
Additionally, her mentor and advisor — UNLV anthropology professor (now Distinguished professor emeritus) Alan Simmons — tapped DiBenedetto to pen three chapters for his book on paleolithic seafaring in the Mediterranean.
All of this helped lead DiBenedetto to Washington, D.C., first as a research analyst at the nonprofit Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and now as program manager for the Marine Global Earth Observatory (MarineGEO) at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
Her responsibilities at MarineGEO involve more public engagement activities than her previous research-oriented work — for example, in addition to promoting the organization’s accomplishments through various communication vehicles, she helps build and maintain relationships with new and existing partners, including academics and citizen scientists. DiBenedetto and a colleague recently traveled to Ireland to hold workshops with several citizen scientists, learning more about their needs and goals and how MarineGEO might be of assistance.
“Environmental and climate issues have always been my first passion,” DiBenedetto says. “And through research for both [professor Simmons’ book] and my dissertation, I became deeply interested in the role oceans/seas have played in human history.
“While I no longer spend my days conducting research, I am thrilled to be able to use the skills I have honed over the last decade as a graduate student and postdoc at UNLV, and as a researcher with IHEP, to support researchers and citizen scientists who are working on discovering how coastal marine ecosystems work — so that they keep working.”
What sparked your interest in anthropology to the point that you knew it was the right career path?
One of the key moments was when I met Dr. Stuart Swiny, who was then a professor in the anthropology department at the University at Albany. He taught classes on the archaeology of Cyprus. Prior to arriving at Albany, professor Swiny had been the director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) in Nicosia, Cyprus, for many years. He brought his extensive knowledge and experience on Cypriot archaeology to the classroom, and I was immediately hooked.
To this day, Cyprus remains one of my absolute favorite places. So much fascinating history has occurred on the island. For instance, it has some of the world’s oldest evidence of human use of wells; it has one of the first possible cat burials associated with a human; Roman general Mark Antony gifted the island of Cyprus to Cleopatra; the island was conquered by King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart) after rulers on the island kidnapped his fiancée in 1191 AD; and Cyprus sadly has one of the world’s last divided capitals.
Professor Swiny was a wonderful mentor. He even got to know my parents and helped convince them to let me go to Cyprus on my first excavation.
What led you to UNLV for graduate school?
I never thought graduate school was an option for me, but it was professor Swiny who encouraged the path. I took several grad-level classes with him as an undergraduate and became deeply interested in the Neolithic period on Cyprus.
He encouraged me to apply to UNLV to work with Dr. Alan Simmons for two reasons: Professor Simmons was one of the few U.S. anthropologists working on this time period on Cyprus, and professor Swiny knew that Alan would be a wonderful mentor and advisor. The two had known one another for years and were good friends.
I was accepted into the program and flew to UNLV to meet with Alan before I made my decision. Once I met him, I was sold. Not only is he an incredible scholar, but he is also a wonderful human being.
I won’t lie: Initially, I was pretty nervous about moving to Las Vegas since it was such a different city than anything I had known. But it really is filled with wonderful people and is quite beautiful and charming in its own unique way. I am also so thankful for the people I got to know at UNLV, many of whom remain some of my closest friends.
UNLV is one of the nation’s most diverse campuses and it’s situated in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. In what ways did you benefit from those realities?
My time at UNLV instilled in me an understanding that diverse perspectives make for better research and a deep passion for ensuring that people — especially those who have been historically marginalized — are given the support they need to pursue their own passions.
As a Ph.D. student, I worked with multinational teams on archaeological excavations. The diversity of perspectives helped make the research stronger. This is actually one of the aspects that most excited me about coming to MarineGEO: the ability to work with people from all around the world on research questions and solutions.
Research cannot be done in a vacuum. It takes people who have had different lived experiences to come together to solve pressing and challenging questions.
You’ve done extensive research on human-environment interactions as both a student and professional. What were your biggest takeaways from that research?
Humans have a complex relationship with the environment. While a healthy environment is key to our own survival, I don’t think we would have been as successful of a species if we had not engineered and manipulated it to better suit us (which of course has had both positive and negative consequences on land, water, and air all around the world).
We are at a pretty scary precipice right now. We can continue to bury our heads in the sand about climate change, which will spell disaster for humans. Or we can figure out ways to address and mitigate some of its worst effects, which will hopefully create a healthier planet for all who call it home.
As someone who has studied past land and water management issues, I am quite hopeful for our future. Humans have struggled with issues related to land and water access for millennia (although the scale of our current struggle is unprecedented). What has saved us time and time again is our own ingenuity. I am hopeful that we will leverage this ingenuity in our current circumstance.