For an Aspiring Paleontologist, All Signs Pointed to the Graduate Center

August 29, 2023

A Ph.D. in Anthropology is the route to a long-held dream for Joseph Won, a 2022 Goldwater Scholar.

Joseph Won Portrait
Joseph Won (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Joseph Won was in the middle of his shift as a prep cook, making food for the butcher counter at the Wegmans grocery store near Binghamton University, where he was a junior, in April 2022, when he received a welcome email. He had won a Barry Goldwater Scholarship. The prestigious award, given to sophomores and juniors who show promise in science research, covers a full year of tuition.

He ducked into the bathroom and took his 15-minute break early to absorb the news.

Won was one of two Binghamton undergraduates to receive a Goldwater in 2022. The school had nominated him based on his research, which ranged from using remote sensing to track the deer population and its impact on local forest growth to studying the fossils of ancient humans at the American Museum of Natural History.

A year later, Won announced on Twitter that he was “super excited” to start a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the Graduate Center in the fall. He thanked his many mentors at and beyond Binghamton and received scores of likes and several congratulatory notes.

Won, who has wanted to be a paleontologist since he was a kid and would ask the librarian for all the books on paleontology, is on the way to realizing his ambition.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology

Last year, he received a National Science Foundation fellowship to spend part of the summer at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, where he surveyed for animal bones to help understand the diet and evolution of early homo species.

Joseph Won excavation
Joseph Won (right) at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, where he returned this summer as an intern. (Photo courtesy of Won)

“I liked living out in the desert for seven weeks,” Won said. “That was the most exciting thing. When I was there, it hit me that while I was just surveying for bones, these bones belong to animals who were alive 2 million, 3 million years ago. … That extremely deep natural history of Earth, that the fact that we get to learn that every day, that is awesome.”

He also received an important tip. The postdocs and people that he met in Kenya recommended he look into working with Professor Christopher Gilbert at the Graduate Center. A colleague at the Stony Brook University lab where Won had been working also mentioned Gilbert.

All signs pointed toward applying to the Graduate Center for a Ph.D., and Won followed them.

Won also appreciates that the Graduate Center is part of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology (NYCEP). The biological anthropology graduate training program brings together faculty, scientific staff, and students from the American Museum of Natural History, CUNY, Columbia, the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, New York University, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

While Won returned to the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya this summer, he is unsure of what area of paleoanthropology he’ll study once he’s at the Graduate Center. “But,” he said, “Dr. Gilbert studies the entirety of primate evolution, so I feel confident that I’m going to find something to enjoy and be really passionate about.”

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