Student Spotlight: Claudia M. Astorino, on the Brink of a Postoc at Berkeley, Shares Her Journey as a Biological Anthropologist and LGBTQIA+ Activist
Astorino's research focuses on variations in the human skull and teeth that are due to differences in sex, and she is a leader and activist for intersex rights in the STEM fields.
By Lida Tunesi
As a high school senior, Claudia M. Astorino enrolled in Advanced Placement biology just to fill a hole in her schedule, and ended up loving it. She then majored in biotechnology and worked in a genetics research lab, but eventually decided she wanted to work with something she could see, and turned to human bones.
Astorino's academic arc is a good model of the advice she offers other students.
“Keep an open mind in terms of where your interests lie,” she said in an interview with the Graduate Center. “Don’t be afraid to try new things or to talk to researchers whose work you find interesting. The thing you might come into graduate school with might not be the thing you do your dissertation on, and your interests may change throughout your career as well.”
Today, Astorino is what she refers to as a “biological anthropologist,” and, as a candidate in the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology at the Graduate Center, works with Professor Eric Delson (GC/Lehman; Anthropology, Earth and Environmental Sciences). She studies variations in the human skull that are due to differences in sex, as well as variations in teeth. When scientists look at fossils or skeletal remains of hominid ancestors, they base their estimate of the individual’s sex on what they know about human variation today, Astorino explained, and it is often the first thing they assess.
“This has huge evolutionary implications,” Astorino said. “Based on whether a fossil of a hominin ancestor is considered male or female, that says something about social group demographics, it can say things about behavior in the past, and it can tell us a lot about life history. If your estimates of sex are inaccurate from the beginning, you’re skewing interpretations of everything after that.”
Astorino was first drawn to the Graduate Center because of its participation in the New York Consortium on Evolutionary Primatology, or NYCEP, which allows students and professors from different institutions around the city to meet, work together, and share access to laboratories and resources. This collaborative spirit appealed to her, and Delson, director of NYCEP, had a research program that fit her interests. Through NYCEP, Astorino has since worked as a teaching assistant at New York University and collaborated with NYU professors on research projects.
After leaving the Graduate Center, Astorino will conduct her postdoctoral studies with Professor Leslea Hlusko, who studies how genetics affect skeletal variation at the University of California, Berkeley, and at CENIEH, in Spain.
In her time outside of school, Astorino also does work around sex and gender, in the form of activism and advocacy for intersex people. She co-founded and led events for New York City's annual Intersex Awareness Day for almost a decade and has collaborated with Organization Intersex International to raise visibility of intersex people, stand up for intersex human rights, and raise awareness of surgeries performed on children without their consent.
These days, Astorino is more interested in talking about intersex rights along with LGBTQIA+ rights in general, especially in STEM fields. She serves on a subcommittee that supports LGBTQIA+ scholars and their allies, within the Committee of Diversity for the American Association of Biological Anthropologists.
Before deciding to get into activism, Astorino said, she first had to make the decision to come out as an intersex person.
“To my knowledge there weren’t any out intersex researchers in STEM,” she said. “It was very nerve-wracking to think about. As a kid, you’re told by all these doctors that your body is different, and not to tell other people because you’ll be made fun of or harassed. You’re made to feel from a very young age that being an intersex person is a deep, dark, shameful secret. I was really unsure what the reception would be but I reached a point in my life where I didn’t want to hide that anymore.”
Astorino recently received the Professional Development Fellowship for Trans, Intersex, and Non-Binary People in STEM from Out to Innovate, which supports awardees’ conference attendance, travel for research, and other professional development opportunities. Being intersex has also influenced her approach to academics.
“When you go into a field knowing that something that’s commonly said, like that there’s only male and female, isn’t true, you’re aware of these biases that perhaps not everyone is thinking about,” Astorino said. “I think that’s informed how I think about science and conduct scientific research — to really think about assumptions.”
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