Adam Netzer Zimmer

“Prime Harvest”: The Bioarchaeology of Body Acquisition for Iceland’s Early Medical Training
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?

Hi! I’m about to start my fifth year of my Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I’m earning a doctorate in anthropology. I’m a forensic anthropologist and bioarchaeologist and my research looks at human remains that are used in medical schools for anatomy classes. I analyze the skeletons to try and figure out who they were in life and what populations were targeted as sources for teaching cadavers, especially at the turn of the twentieth century. I work mainly in Iceland, where I’ve now spent two years of my Ph.D. as an affiliated researcher with the University of Iceland’s medical school.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

This has changed a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to that, though, I would go into the anatomy labs at the University of Iceland in the morning and spend a few hours sorting through the human remains, sorting them by type (ex. upper arm bones, hand bones, ribs, etc) and then the afternoons were spent actually looking at the remains for any identifying features or for indicators of where that individual came from prior to being used as a lab specimen.

Since the pandemic started, I typically wake up and do an hour or two of Icelandic language practice online in the mornings and spend the afternoon sorting the thousands of photos I’ve taken of the remains. At this point, it’s all computer work!

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?

I’m beyond lucky at how much my Ph.D. has allowed me to travel. I never in a million years would think that I would go from growing up in a tiny village in upstate New York to living in the capital of Iceland.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?

The most challenging thing right now is staying motivated during the pandemic. Everyone is just doing their best to manage a completely different style of work and home life right now so trying to find that balance after having been on such a strict schedule before is tough.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
At this point, I’m honestly not sure. Unfortunately, most universities have a hiring freeze or are even cutting positions so the competition for jobs will be tough. Thankfully, though, I come from a pretty holistic anthropology department so there are a few different ways that I could deploy the skills I’ve gained in my Ph.D.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Don’t pay to do a Ph.D.! Many departments can be predatory and accept a much higher number of students than they actually plan to retain and so new students have to “prove themselves” before getting funding after a year or two. Look for programs that might be smaller but that offer at least a couple of years of teaching assistantships or other funding opportunities so you can get settled while you start your coursework.

What makes your university a good place to study?

Western Massachusetts is a really beautiful place to live while working on my doctorate. It’s rural enough to make a country dweller like me feel happy while still being close enough to major metropolitan areas that I can call on external resources when necessary. Plus, I have an amazing advisor, Dr. Whitney Battle-Baptiste, who goes above and beyond what you could ask for during a Ph.D.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

A lot of my time is just spent exploring all the nature around Iceland. There’s nothing like being at the base of a glacier watching the northern lights on a cold winter night.

Want to learn more about Adam?

Check out his personal website, profile and Twitter account using the links below. Also check out the Scientific American article Adam wrote related to his research:

Personal Website | Twitter | Profile | Scientific American article

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