Paul Mitchell: At Penn, Four Years of Looking at the Past

Paul Mitchell’s deep interest in anthropology and in exploring human evolution and variation was sparked by his first course in the fall of 2009 during his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“I thought it was the most interesting and intellectually stimulating thing I’ve ever seen,” he says.

During that year, he got a Penn Museum work-study job with Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the Physical Anthropology section.  She became his mentor and faculty advisor.

Mitchell has been Monge’s research assistant for nearly four years, helping to organize and catalog the Museum’s famous Morton Collection of Human Crania, which contains more than 2,000 skulls from around the world. Mitchell photographed and created state-of-the-art 3D CT scans of the precious collection for researchers to study.

“I’ve been able to do a lot and get a privileged view into the museum world and into the importance of collections, of the use of primary data and working directly with the material evidence,” he says.

Mitchell, who will graduate in May with an undergraduate degree in philosophy and anthropology and a master’s in biological anthropology, has also worked on other projects with the Penn Museum.

One involves studying how humans came to speak as we do to today.

“Variations in the architecture in the bottom of the skull,” Mitchell says, “influence the vocal tract and using that variation in modern humans as a baseline to track the evolution of the vocal tract in our ancestors and seeing where in our lineage we were first able to speak as we do today” is what he studied.

Mitchell has excavated at the archaeological site of Duffy's Cut in Malvern, Pa., where 57 Irish immigrants working on building a railroad line in 1832 died during a cholera epidemic.

Penn Museum research projects have taken the Eaton Township, Ohio, native across the country and around the world, including Dunedin, New Zealand, and Laikipia and Lamu, Kenya.

Mitchell’s packed schedule includes lecturing at an honors anthropology class at University City High School, along with professor Brian Spooner of the Anthropology Department. During the year, they lecture about their Penn Museum research projects and bring students to the Museum for classes. They use the collections to talk about issues such as the biology of race and ethnicity and the evolution of language.  

“Diversity, culture, mutual understanding, our evolution -- these are things that people talk about not nearly enough,” Mitchell says. “I think this forms the concepts which form the basis of human solidarity, sympathy. In order to understand each other we need to have a good grasp of these concepts.”

After four years of intense study and many rewarding experiences, Mitchell will head to the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue a Ph.D. in integrative biology.