Erin Burke is an anthropologist and professor who lead research at National Geographic before pursuing her doctorate at Yale University. Her dissertation research focuses on the physiological changes that gay men go through after becoming fathers, as reflected by changes in hormones levels. We sat down with Erin to her to learn a bit about her world in academia and dig into her modern family research.
Tell us a bit about your story. How did you find yourself getting a PhD in anthropology?
I’ve always been interested in figuring out how humans tick. Getting to do that for a living was a dream, and so pursuing a PhD was a natural step in my career.
Can you talk a bit about your dissertation? What’s it looking at?
I’m the principal investigator at the Yale Gay Fathers Project. It’s a study that seeks to answer how and why paternal care evolved in our species by measuring changes in hormone levels in fathers. This Project is a groundbreaking research initiative exploring these responses in a community often ignored by biosocial research: gay male parents.
Amazing–how did you become interested in this?
In the last decade or so, we have learned a lot about how men respond on a physical/hormonal level to childcare. Studies of father’s hormonal changes had been done around the globe, in the U.S, Canada, Israel, the Philippines, and Tanzania to name only a few. However, it became increasingly obvious to me that these efforts were missing a large, growing demographic: gay dads.
What do you think the implications are for modern families?
Hopefully my research will bring attention to the fact that there are many ways to be a family.
Are you optimistic about more research in this area?
Absolutely! I think this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of biological anthropology’s recognition that there are many ways to be a family. We often study more “exotic” cultures, but forget to be reflexive. We need to ask ourselves, “How are families constructed in our own backyards?” What it means to be a family has always been malleable and humans’ ability to creatively construct our kinship extends through time and space.
We’d love to hear a bit about your time at National Geographic.
Prior to pursuing my PhD, I worked for the Genographic Project at National Geographic. The Genographic Project tests DNA of people around the world to learn more about our shared history and how we populated the globe. I interfaced with the public participants in the project—in other words, the people who purchased a DNA kit to learn more about their personal ancestral journey. Through this work, I was able to meet so many wonderful people who were genuinely interested in, not only their own ancestral routes, but contributing to our knowledge about the human journey by donating their DNA results to the Project.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
At the moment, I’m really enjoying teaching. Being able to expose students to a new way of thinking and seeing that “ah-ha!” moment on their faces is truly an awesome experience. It’s also fun to get them outside their comfort zones and talk about things that aren’t usually thought of as academic fodder. For example, this week we were discussing the history of the dildo and its original use for treating women with “hysteria.” I confirmed that this was the first time my students had ever discussed dildos in a classroom!
How have you been able to lift other women up? Can you talk a bit about how you’ve seen the benefit of women supporting women?
I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by some pretty amazing women academics while pursuing my PhD. We all have an implicit understanding that helping each other succeed is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes we help reinforce that understanding with bottles of wine and copious amount of sushi ;)
We're all about information here. Can you think of a time you learned something that made you feel more powerful?
I worked in an endocrinology lab during my PhD, and there were many opportunities to test my own hormones. Other than just personal knowledge of my hormone levels, I now had the ability to speak with authority about my own body when meeting with doctors. Sometimes, they weren’t quite expecting me to come armed with data! But I found that being informed completely changes the tone and tenor of the conversation with one’s doctor—in a good way.
How do you stay sane? What are some of your favorite habits for wellness?
My two favorite ways to destress are 1) biking and 2) watching cookie decorating videos on Instagram. I highly, highly recommend everyone follow thehayleycakes.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
Always wear a helmet.
What does being a Modern woman mean to you?
To me, being a modern woman means being comfortable with one’s own authority and expertise. And that can be in any area: astrophysics, baking, childcare, dentistry! The journey to comfort isn’t always easy, and I still find myself retreating when the going gets tough. It’s in those moments when having other awesome, supportive modern women (and men) in my corner pays dividends.
How do you think about fertility in the context of your life? Do you think that will shift?
I don’t actively think about my own fertility, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not passively in the back of my mind, which I suspect might be the case for many women.
How do you think fertility information can empower other women?
In terms of fertility, it’s never a bad idea to be informed. Most people already keep tabs on health indicators, like cholesterol and Vitamin D levels. Why wouldn’t you want to know more about your reproductive health as well?