New podcast tracks the evolution of diverse human traits

The Tracking Traits podcast series from Penn State’s Center for Human Evolution and Diversity features undergrads interviewing research scientists about their pioneering work and personal passions. Credit: Michael TriboneAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. ­— From skin pigmentation to food preferences to gender identification, there are no limits to the diversity of individual human expression. And whether they be genetic, cultural, or a mix of both, the root causes of all these extraordinary variations have long fascinated our species. 

Tracking Traits,” a new podcast launched by Penn State’s Center for Human Evolution and Diversity (CHED), explores the current work of researchers who are forging new pathways to understanding the evolution of human diversity, via a wide variety of approaches. 

"Tracking Traits provides a glimpse into scientific curiosity and the attitude we try to bring to all of CHED's work,” explained center co-director Nina Jablonski, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology. “We’re trying to tackle important and interesting problems in human evolutionary biology. To do this, we want to engage with people of diverse backgrounds and talents, including some of our highly motivated undergraduate research students.”

For the eight episodes of the show’s first season, three Penn State undergrads conducted the researcher interviews. Samantha Muller is a forensic science major with a minor in anthropology; Hannah Marchok is a biobehavioral health major with a minor in global health; and Amy Mook graduated from Penn State in spring 2021 with a degree in genetics and developmental biology.

“I was so excited to be able to interview such an amazing array of scientists from in and around our department,” said Muller. “Everyone had a unique view to present on, not to mention a unique topic. However, what struck me most was everyone’s excitement to create a project that would relate all of these interests back to the broad ideas of human diversity.”

In addition to episodes that relate the story of CHED’s founding and the research of Jablonski and the center’s other co-director, professor of biological anthropology Mark Shriver, Tracking Traits’ first season explores the following scientists’ work:

  • Bronwen Powell, assistant professor of geography, African studies, and anthropology, explains “Evolutionary Drivers of Our Tastes for Vegetables.”
  • Tony Wolf, postdoctoral fellow in physiology, looks at “Skin Pigmentation’s Effect on Cardiovascular Health.”  
  • Marta Tomaszkiewicz, assistant research professor of biology, examines “The Male Side of the Human Infertility Equation.”
  • Natalia Grube, graduate student in biology, investigates “Time, Tapeworms and the Evolution of the Human Diet.”
  • David Puts, associate professor of anthropology, dives into “The Endless Mysteries of Human Sexual Selection.”

In addition to discussing their science, Tracking Traits’ student hosts talked with the researchers about their personal stories, including the reasons they decided to pursue research as a career. 

“I think that's an important part of our program here,” noted Shriver. “Hearing from the people as people about their lives and how they developed the curiosity. … When did that happen, and then when did they see it was going in a good direction, that they could build a career on? Who did they reach out to as mentors? I don't think there's enough of these science stories out there from scientists. So I think that's going to be a really interesting part of this and probably useful to students.”

Muller agreed, saying, “All the researchers, whether anthropologists, biologists, or in-between, were so passionate about what they were doing that it made me so excited for my future as a scientist.”

The Center for Human Evolution and Diversity (CHED) is a joint venture of Penn State’s Department of Anthropology and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. The scientists interviewed on the show all received 2021 seed grants from CHED and agreed to participate in the podcast in order to educate and inspire others.

For the 2022 seed grant program, CHED seeks proposals for multidisciplinary projects aimed at developing innovative methods for visualizing and/or studying the human phenotype (including human behavior) and human contextual information using common handheld and wearable devices. Recipients of these grants will be featured in the next season of Tracking Traits. 

Applications for the 2022 cycle of CHED seed grants will be accepted through Friday, Dec. 10. For more information on the program, visit the CHED RFP page.  

To listen to the entire first season of Tracking Traits and subscribe to the series, visit the Tracking Traits website

Last Updated October 15, 2021