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An evolution revolution

Assistant Anthropology Professor Thomas Rein leads a lecture in his Introduction to Biological Anthropology class. (Photo by John Atashian)

By Loretta Waldman

A lecture about the bones and brains of ancient primates could be as dry as dust, but not when Assistant Anthropology Professor Thomas Rein is giving it. His obvious passion for and deep understanding of his subject is drawing students in and even inspiring some to switch majors.

At a recent presentation to the roughly 90 students in his ANTH 160: Introduction to Biological Anthropology class, Rein ticked off terms that could easily make a non-expert’s eyes glaze over. Not this class. Despite the early hour and dimmed lights in Torp Theater, students are engaged and excitedly raising their hands whenever Rein asks a question.

Rein is a paleoanthropologist and biological anthropologist, a subset of the field focused on behavioral aspects of human beings, related non-human primates, and the extinct human-like ancestors from which modern humans evolved. In his three years at Central, Rein has established himself as a generous, genuinely helpful instructor with a knack for making an obscure subject understandable and relevant.

“He’s my favorite teacher,” says Chris Hageman, a junior in Rein’s ANTH 373: Methods in Biological Anthropology. “He doesn’t make you feel pressure or intimidate you. He’s relatable. You see how passionate he is. I enjoy that kind of learning environment. I think everybody does.”

Jerry Chery, a junior in the same class, was a business major before taking an introductory course with Reins and switching to anthropology.

“The way he taught it really got me into it,” says Chery. “I wanted to learn more about how people moved; how we evolved as a civilization, all that. It’s just an interesting field to me.”

Rein, who grew up in Plainville, says a similar experience inspired him to enter the field. He was an undergraduate student at Columbia University and asked his older sister, an English major there, to recommend an easy class to fulfill his science requirement.

“At the time, I was afraid of science actually,” Rein recalls. “Looking back that seems so strange now. I remember asking her, ‘What’s an easy science requirement course?’ ‘What can I take to get this out of the way?’”

Rein ended up in an introductory biological anthropology class with Professor Jill Shapiro.

Assistant Anthropology Professor Thomas Rein works with a student in his Methods in Biological Anthropology class. (Photo by Loretta Waldman)

“She was just the most amazing professor, one of those inspirational figures,” he says. “She just taught me all these things about fossils and primates, and really it was the first time I got a holistic perspective on genetics, evolution, and how that relates to human evolution. I was hooked.”

More classes followed and a three-month internship with another Columbia professor, Marina Cords, observing monkeys in the Kakamega Rain Forest in Kenya. The following summer, Rein had another internship in a neurobiology lab at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, where he worked with then doctoral student Chet Sherwood researching ape brains. 

“I was photographing these specimens,” says Rein. “They taught me how to take thin slices of these specimens for research. I was measuring MRI scans of the brain. Again, it was a fantastic opportunity to learn some skills.”

The internship led to Rein’s first research paper, co-authored with Sherwood. After taking a year off, he was accepted into the graduate anthropology program at New York University, where he spent the next six years. Rein’s eyes widen remembering the perks of being an anthropology student in New York, which included an internship at the Museum of Natural History where he and fellow graduate students were allowed to work, even after hours. He says he will never forget the generosity Sherwood showed by giving him the chance to work on the paper, and he has made a point of paying the gift forward in his own career.

One of his most popular classes is an introduction to forensic anthropology, where students learn and practice the techniques used by forensic anthropologists to solve crimes. He is an authority on geometric morphometrics and virtual anthropology, fields of study that make use of digital technology to produce and examine three-dimensional models of bone.

As students in his methods class finished up their final projects, Rein moves from desk to desk assisting them with graphing and interpreting the data they’ve gathered using the technology. Instead of old-fashioned calipers, researchers map skull and bone specimens electronically with a digitizing stylus or, more recently, a laser scanner, which captures more subtle differences in shape. Medical CT scanners also are being used to produce views inside the bone.

Besides being enthusiastic about the material, Rein says being organized and consistent in his expectations has contributed to his success in the classroom. That and not lecturing all the time. Small group activities, where students are given a question and 10 or 15 minutes to brainstorm on a solution, invariably yield positive results, he says.

“We can have this really great discussion after we’ve come up with all these different ideas,” Rein notes. “Students feel comfortable about expressing their ideas in smaller groups of students; then you can have this larger discussion. I was a very shy student, somebody who wouldn’t raise my hand even if I did know the answer. So trying to make students feel comfortable doing that is important.”

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