Sometimes I see the people on ‘Survivor’ and I think, ‘They’re not really roughing it,’” says Maria Kelly ‘03, laughing. “They might be getting bitten by bugs and freaking out, but they’ve still got it pretty good.”
Kelly, 29, knows what she’s talking about. She’s traveled repeatedly to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Equatorial New Guinea and South Africa, often to destinations so remote that they aren’t even on most maps.
“In New Guinea, we had to hike in to the camp,” she says. “You could bring 25 pounds of stuff. That’s two changes of clothing and raingear, not much more.” These expeditions aren’t fancy safaris or stays at cushy resorts — they’re working trips to pursue Kelly’s interest in physical and biological anthropology. At each destination, she’s participated in a research project, doing everything from underwater archeology to helping count mammals for a biodiversity census. She usually stays in makeshift accommodations, without electricity or most creature comforts.
“There are very tough conditions,” she admits. “Everyone is out of their comfort zone, and some are better suited to it than others. I just happen to really like it.”
Kelly went on her first expedition as an undergraduate, when she traveled to the north coast of the Dominican Republic to work with Professor Jerome Hall of the USD Anthropology Department on his excavation of the Monte Cristi Pipe Wreck. (The site gets its name because the ship had a large cargo of clay pipes, and is located in Monte Cristi Bay.)
“I had taken Professor Hall’s Nautical Archeology and Caribbean Cultures classes and I was hooked,” she says. “Learning about other cultures is endlessly interesting.” It was Kelly’s first trip out of the country on her own, and despite an experience she describes as “manual labor on a deserted island,” she promptly switched her major to anthropology.
“I found the experience of underwater archeology fascinating,” she says. “You are retrieving artifacts from a very unstable and unfamiliar environment, and then categorizing, assessing and preserving them on shore. It’s very difficult and puzzling.”
Since graduating, Kelly has worked at the Community Coaching Center in San Diego, an after-school skills development program for children on the autism spectrum. “We take the kids out into the community and work with them on behavior, communication, and independence,” she says. “They go shopping, or go to museums, and volunteer and food banks. It’s a totally innovative program, the only one of its kind in San Diego.”
The job has allowed her to stay near USD, where she’s working toward a master’s degree, and provides flexible time off for her increasing interest in fieldwork. “I knew I wanted to go back to school for biological anthropology, but I needed more experience, so I’ve been volunteering or interning on these expeditions.”
Turns out, she’s a natural.
“I’ve always been an animal person,” she says. “I find watching monkeys in the wild all day to be a peaceful experience.”
This year, she will be applying to PhD programs, following in the footsteps of her hero, primatologist Diane Fossey. “She was a bit radical but she did great things,” says Kelly. “And her hair was always a mess in the field, just like mine.”
Now that’s reality.
FEATURE PHOTO BY Maria Kelly