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Lithic raw material meets wicked raw talent: Sydney James

September 11, 2019
Senior anthropology major Sydney James has turned her passion into experience, awards, an internship and more at Coastal Carolina University.

Talent and curiosity meet up with opportunity and mentorship: It’s a formula for accomplishment, and it sums up Sydney James’ academic journey at CCU on her way to becoming a paleoanthropologist. The best part? She’s not even done yet.

James, a senior, has been driven by inquisitiveness and passion for her field since taking her first steps on campus. In three years, she’s racked up awards, accolades, a competitive research fellowship, professional conference presentations, and a prestigious internship that have continually led her deeper into her discipline and made her undergraduate experience much more than a series of classes. Her dedication and intellectual curiosity, with input and guidance from faculty members, puts her on a fast track to prominence in the field of archaeology.

Enrolled at CCU as a history major, James quickly changed her major when she learned of the new anthropology program at freshman orientation. Driven right out of the gate, she joined the anthropology club that first semester.

James developed her first research interest ¬– ceramics – during a prehistoric archaeological field school she completed with Carolyn Dillian, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology and Geography, on Waites Island in Little River the summer following her freshman year. James continued her research as an Edwards College Research Fellow during her sophomore year, which led to her co-authoring a paper with Dillian that quantified archaeological ceramics. That research, in turn, led to a presentation on using experimental archaeology as a tool for education, which won first place in the Spring 2018 CCU Undergraduate Research Competition.

“I wanted to explore not only what we can do with research from sites, but how we can communicate it,” said Sydney.

As her coursework continued, her passion for the field both evolved and strengthened. Her most significant experience was a highly competitive joint-fellowship among George Washington University, the National Science Foundation International Research Experience for Students and the National Museums of Kenya that allowed her to attend the Koobi Fora Field School in northern Kenya in the summer of 2018. Established in 2012, the Koobi Fora Field School has trained future generations of schools to carefully examine remnants of ancient civilizations.

“I knew I was interested in ceramics but also in lithics – stone tool technology,” said James. “The project I was involved in was looking at how hominids were using their social patterns and where they were getting their stone tool resources, how they were procuring them.”

For six weeks, James and her field-school classmates completed hands-on learning activities that centered on lectures in paleoecology, early hominin diets and energy expenditures.

“It was amazing,” James said. “It was definitely out of my comfort zone. We were camping for the whole six weeks moving from one place to another. All the landscapes were really different.”

The group encountered very few other people during their adventure, which included a particularly difficult trek through the Kerari desert, on the Northern end of Lake Turkana. James found significant reward in the challenging experience.

“I think it’s important that I learned that no matter what the situation is, and no matter what my comfort zone is, I’m capable of doing the things that I want to do.”

That might be an understatement.

“Sydney goes above and beyond and always has interesting questions,” said Dillian. “She’s consistently engaged in the classroom and enthusiastic about the program as a whole.”

James went on to present the findings of her summer project at a conference for the Society for American Archaeology in April 2019 in Albuquerque, N.M. In addition, she was accepted to return to the Koobi Fora Field School as an intern in summer 2019; she spent two months continuing her research and mentoring another student.

With all the hard work and focus she’s demonstrated to reach these academic heights, James still recognizes the key role of her own mentors during her time at CCU.

“I’m lucky I found something that I’m super passionate about. I don’t know what I would be doing if it wasn’t archaeology, but I also owe a lot to the faculty,” said James. “I am incredibly lucky to be working with Dr. Dillian. I wouldn’t be in this spot if it weren’t for her.”

For her part, Dillian fully expects that her relationship with James will continue far into the future, most likely at an academic conference where she hopes the two will bump into each other as colleagues.

“We’re all so proud of her and her accomplishments,” said Dillian.

Wherever her research interests might take her, James feels there’s no limit to her curiosity.

“I don’t think you ever stop learning,” she said. “The day that you think you know everything is the day when you’ve got it all wrong.”