Cara Ocobock is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Human Energetics Laboratory in the College of Arts and Letters and is affiliated with the Eck Institute for Global Health. In this Q&A, she discusses her current research, how she originally became interested in her field, and her love of teaching. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, and her graduate degrees in Anthropology from Washington University, St. Louis.
Tell us a little bit about your research program. How and when did you first become interested in the field?
I am a human biologist who explores the physiological and behavioral mechanisms necessary to cope with and adapt to extreme climates and high levels of physical activity. My work has taken me from the Rocky Mountains to the Arctic Circle where I have worked with outdoor enthusiasts, runners taking part in a cross-country foot race, and reindeer herders in Finland.
I became interested in anthropology when I took a four-field course in college as a freshman to fulfill a requirement. I kind of fell in love with it, but was unsure which of the sub-fields I wanted to explore. Liking archaeology and biological anthropology the most, I took more classes and settled on biological anthropology. It combined all the things I loved about the medical field (the study of human anatomy and physiology but within an evolutionary context), which I had previously intended on pursuing, but with greater freedom to explore different lines of intellectual inquiry.
What are you currently working on, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
I am currently working on writing up some of my research in Finland looking at cold climate adaptations among the reindeer herders there. I am also applying for grants to continue that work on a larger scale. I also recently conducted a survey-based study on how COVID-19 stay-at-home orders impacted people’s exercise routines which then impacted their perceived physical and mental wellbeing.
What do you consider your greatest scientific/research achievement to date? Is there a publication or work you are most proud of?
I quite like a recent paper of mine on resting metabolic rates among the reindeer herders I work with. We found that females have higher metabolic rates than males! That has never been observed before, so there is lots to follow up on once we are all able to travel again. I also like this piece I wrote in Sapiens. This is heart-on-my-sleeve anthropology.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of training students? Is there a class you hope to teach?
I LOVE watching the moment things “click” for a student intellectually. As in, I can see the light bulb turn on and the delighted looks on their faces.
As for a class I would like to develop and teach: a Hu(wo)man evolution class. Theorizing about and analyses of human evolution are largely done by cis, white men and about cis, white men. This class would turn that pattern on its head, approaching human evolution from a feminist perspective.
Do you have any plans for the future? If so, what are they?
This is such a hard question in the time of COVID-19! Well, I am hopeful that I will be able to travel again. I am itching to get back to Finland. I also have a project I and collaborators recently received funding for to look at long-held beliefs about the ties between morphological variation and physiological function in a variety of climates using a climate chamber. We will be starting that project later this summer, though will likely have to push back data collection due to the pandemic.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself, or something you enjoy doing in your free time.
I am/was a powerlifter. I cannot wait to get back in the gym post-pandemic! I can make balloon animals. I love cooking and baking.