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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Anthropology Professor Nate Dominy

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Nate DominyA.jpgNate Dominy is a professor in the Department of Anthropology and an adjunct professor in the Department of Biology at the College. His anatomical research primarily concerns how humans and other primates have evolved to acquire food — a key force that has shaped who we are as a species.

Dominy’s journey to academia began as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, where he would complete a double major in Anthropology and English Literature. He took advantage of a program that allowed students to do research at the medical school, teaming up with an Anatomy professor and joining a trip to Costa Rica at age 18 to study monkeys (his job was mostly to catch the tranquilized animals with a net as they fell out of a tree). His love of that work has never left him.

As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hong Kong, Dominy continued to study primate evolution and the impact that food collection and eating has on human biology. His major work during that time contrasted four species of primates in Uganda which have trichromatic color vision, just like humans, with monkeys with only bichromatic vision (red-green color-blind). The research showed that the primates who see like humans sought out leaves and fruit that were distinguishable by the ability to see those colors — likely an evolutionary advantage we developed for this reason.

Dominy earned his Ph.D. in 2001, then did a postdoc at the University of Chicago before spending six years teaching at UC Santa Cruz. He came to Dartmouth in 2010 as an associate professor, and he earned full professor status in 2015. As a relatively young faculty member, Dominy already has an impressive h-index of 32, according to Google Scholar. He has also won the John M. Manley Huntington Award for Newly Promoted Faculty.

Dominy’s focus on primates gathering food resources has taken him all sort of places, including up into trees. The research consensus on human evolution holds that once our feet and legs changed to accommodate bipedal standing and walking, our species had to give up climbing trees. That turns out not to be entirely true. While there has been an anatomical trade-off for humans, Dominy researched communities in Africa that hunt and gather in the rainforest. The people of those communities climb trees constantly to collect honey — proving that early humans likely didn’t have to give up all tree mobility when they shifted to standing on two feet. You can learn more about this idea from Dominy here:

The most cited paper (800 citations in the works of other researchers) that Dominy has co-authored examines when and how early humans began to eat starchy foods like tubers, roots, and bulbs. To solve the question, he looked at the enzyme amalyse as a clue. To break down starchy foods, humans today have as many as sixteen copies of an amalyse-producing gene, while other primates have just two. Evidence suggests those copies began to multiply in the last 100,000 years, which shows how we likely have forced an evolution on ourselves by eating more starch over time. More here:

Dominy typically teaches a range of introductory and intermediate courses like Anthro 6, Anthro 20 and Anthro 40. This fall he’ll be adding a brand new course, Anthro 70: Experiencing Human Origins and Evolution, where students will learn about human evolution in southern Africa and then participate in a three-week trip to South Africa after the term ends. The course will be funded by President Hanlon this year, and if successful, Dominy hopes alumni will pick up the bill thereafter.

Meanwhile, Dominy is going full circle in encouraging his undergraduates to do research. Just last week, Samuel Gochman ‘18 published a study overseen by Dominy that looked at the preferences for alcohol consumption of aye-aye primates in a controlled experiment.

Dominy’s wife, Erin Butler, is a Neukom Fellow at the Thayer School.

Addendum for the kids: Dominy has also penned an academic style paper on why Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would benefit from his glowing nose. He wrote that the article was “inspired by my daughter Eleanor, who likes to ask why.”

Addendum: An alumnus write in:

Nice article on Nate. I believe he was recruited by Buddy Teevens ‘79 to be the academic advisor to the football team. He is also leading a Dartmouth Alumni Travel trip to Borneo (to see the orangutans and other primates), Bali, and Komodo Island (dragons, of course) in the fall of 2017. Come join us!


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