Name: Regina Fairbanks
Major: Biology & Anthropology, with a minor in Archeological Science
Hometown: Broomall, PA
Activities: Penn Museum Fellow, Undergraduate Researcher in the Levine Lab, Phi Sigma Biological Honors Society, and previously an oboist in the Wind Ensemble
Street: You’ve worked as a research intern for the National Science Foundation and are currently working in the Levine Lab at Penn. Can you trace back your interest in science?
Regina Fairbanks: As a kid, I lived in rural Oklahoma...I was always outside in nature and I watched a lot of nature documentaries on PBS. My grandfather too was an organic chemist, so he was always sending me astronomy books and science kits. Then when I moved here, to just outside Philadelphia, my parents always brought me to the local museums— the Philly Art Museum, the Penn Museum, the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Barnes Institute— all the museums.
Street: Can you tell me what it's like to work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History? What was the most rewarding part of your experience?
RF: Every Friday we got to do these behind-the-scenes tours in the collections of all the different departments...they’d bring us into the entomology (study of insects), the geology, and the paleontology department and showed us all the things that they don’t show to the public...some of the specimens had been collected by famous people, for example, Teddy Roosevelt collected birds and they’re now at the Smithsonian and we got to see the birds that he had collected when he was a kid.
Street: Can you tell me about the research that you are currently working on?
RF: I’m on two projects right now: one at the Penn Museum and one in the Levine Lab of the Biology Department, which focuses on genetics and epigenetics. At the Penn Museum, I study archaeobotanical material from a site in Israel...these carbonized seeds that were recovered when they were excavating this 5,000-year-old site. I’m using a microscope to identify what type of crops, weeds, or wild seeds they are—based on the morphology or anatomical features of the seeds. I’ve uncovered a really huge barley cache, so they were clearly growing a lot of barley grains at this point. This is a really interesting time in this location because this was the rise of early cities, so understanding how they intensified their agricultural strategies and food storage is really important in understanding how they started to urbanize. In the Biology Department, I’m studying life-history adaptation in flies. During the winter, female flies can shut down their reproductive system and stop aging which is really interesting, so we’re studying how they do that through epigenetic regulation. We’re also trying to figure out how they maintain their genome integrity when they extend their life-span for that long. Normally flies live for like a month, but when they survive the winter they can live for five-months. So we’re trying to figure out they can extend their lifespan without acquiring so many mutations in what will become the eggs...we can use flies as a model system to learn more about the aging process. The grad student I’m working with, she’s trying to understand how this work could apply to fertility in humans, because as humans age their fertility decreases, and understanding how to combat that is really important for a lot of people.
Street: It sounds like you’re really interested in both science and archaeology. Can you tell me more about the intersection between science and archaeology?
RF: That’s where things get really exciting— the intersection of evolutionary biology, genomics, and archaeology...I really want to continue to research ancient DNA from plants, animals, humans, and even microbiomes to understand the evolution of those species and human-environment interactions over time.
Street: What do your roles look like now that Penn has gone remote? How have your positions changed?
RF: I’m really lucky on the museum-side. I’m allowed into the lab twice a week—I can go in and analyze my samples. This is a recent development in the past month. The Biology Department has been a little bit harder, I haven’t been able to go into the lab. I’m learning how to do some of the genomics and computational work that you can do on the computer. I’m also analyzing microscope images of fruit fly ovaries that the grad student I’m working with took pictures of.
Street: What has been the most interesting finding you’ve had in your research?
RF: One thing for archaeobotany for me is that the really tiny things matter a lot. I found a few lentils in my samples and you can tell if they’re boiled or not. It’s really fun to see that a person 5,000 years ago had boiled some lentils, dropped them on the floor and now I’m looking at them in the lab 5,000 years later.
Street: What’s it like pursuing a STEM field considering that these fields are often dominated by men especially in higher positions?
RF: Biology is closer to gender equity than most of the other science fields, but museums are still kind of a “boys club” situation. I’ve intentionally searched for women research mentors which have really helped. I’ve been really lucky...there isn’t a ton out there due to gender discrepancies. My research mentors have definitely been inspirational to me.
Street: Can you tell me about your plans for your time after Penn?
RF: I’m currently applying to Ph.D. programs in the United States and some graduate schools in the UK. I’m trying to find a lab that studies the ancient DNA of plants, there are not too many of those so it’s been difficult to find, but there are a few really great ones out there that study crop domestication, human-plant interactions, and human-plant co-evolution using genomics on archived specimens that people have collected in museums over the years. We can go back to those plants that were collected before people even knew that DNA was a thing and recover genetic material from those plant specimens.
Street: What do you see as your ideal future career?
RF: I would like to be a curator and research scientist in a natural history museum.
Street: Last song that you listened to...
RF: The Spotify Late Night Jazz playlist.
Street: What is something that people wouldn’t guess about you?
RF: I’ve edited hundreds of Wikipedia pages.
Street: If you could have any superpower what would it be?
RF: Time travel.
Street: Any hobbies you picked up in quarantine?
RF: Brewing my own loose-leaf tea.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn.
RF: Students who have been to the Penn Museum and students who have not gone to the Penn Museum but should.
Street: And you are?
RF: One who has gone to the Penn Museum, for sure.