Alumni spotlight on Siobhán Mattison: Demystifying things deemed paradoxical
Dr. Siobhán Mattison is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and director of the Human Family and Evolutionary Demography Lab.
She recently served as a director for the National Science Foundation’s Cultural Anthropology funding program (2019-2023). Mattison earned her PhD at the University of Washington (UW) in 2010 and completed the anthropology CSSS track. Her areas of interest are kinship, parenting, reproduction, social inequality, human behavioral ecology, demography, mixed methods, China, and Vanuatu (an island country in the South Pacific).
Mattison spoke with CSSS in Fall 2023 about her academic and personal journey, and the value of building strong statistical foundations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: What has been your career path to your current position?
Answer: I’ve had a lifelong love of biology. When I started undergrad at New York University, I thought I was going to be some sort of doctor. But, when I transferred to Cornell (following a boyfriend!), I took courses in neurobiology and ended up falling in love with animal behavior as a research area.
After graduating, I worked in finance for a year, which I quickly discovered wasn’t for me. So, I applied to graduate school in psychology, biology, or anthropology. I didn't know which one was the right fit.
When I interviewed at UW in Anthropology, the structure of the program, the professors, and their enthusiasm sold me on the PhD. Afterwards, I went to Stanford for my postdoc, and from there to the University of Auckland, as my first faculty position. It was a bittersweet departure after two years from Auckland — I loved it but had to leave for health reasons.
After a series of interviews, I landed at the University of New Mexico (UNM), which I think is the nation's best program in my area of evolutionary anthropology. After a few years at UNM, I had the opportunity to become a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was a wonderful chance to expand my research program and get a broader sense of the discipline. After four years with NSF, I’m now back at UNM with a much broader range of ideas about what I want to study.
Q: You work on such a unique mix of topics. What drew you to your research area?
A: It’s very personal — I grew up in a quasi-Irish Catholic household, with three older brothers. And there were – to me — some very insidious manifestations of ‘son preference,’ including biases toward believing that boys are inherently more intelligent or have stronger capacities than girls across a range of different activities. I know my parents would deny this, but I think my sister would agree!
When I did an undergraduate animal behavior course, they presented research on the Trivers-Willard Hypothesis, which suggests some conditions set the stage for greater payoffs to investments in their daughters over sons. I was really intrigued by that, probably as a result of my personal experiences growing up.
I wanted to understand why parents invested in sons versus daughters. That was the question that I came into the doctoral program with. And I ended up pursuing that in the context of a society that practices matrilineal kinship, where descent and inheritance are traced through women.
I now describe my research program as one where I try to demystify things that are deemed paradoxical. For example, I'm interested in when we invest in women and in daughters instead of in sons – which is seen as a rarity. I think my statistics background helps me have a more nuanced understanding that something can be relatively uncommon, but still completely predictable as part of a distribution.
Q: Why did you initially get involved with CSSS?
A: I’d done a bunch of research in the field for my dissertation, but I realized I didn't have the tools I needed to analyze the data.
I think the first course I enrolled in might have been categorical data analysis with Chris Adolph. CSSS’ approach to social statistics was so useful to propel my dissertation forward that I ultimately pursued the certificate.
Q: How did your CSSS experiences influence your work?
A: The CSSS program taught me how to build models from small foundations. I never envisioned myself being a Stack Overflow addict, but that’s what happened directly as a result of my training at CSSS. We were taught how to build models without using packages. Having a well-grounded understanding of statistics, probability, how models work – it helps you understand the power of statistics but also its limits. And, you know that if something isn't out there already built, that you can find a way to solve it yourself.
Another great thing about CSSS is that the professors there are world-renowned experts, but if I asked them a question that was at the limit of their expertise, they always said so. They weren’t ever afraid to say, “I don’t know.” And then, they would work alongside you to structure the question from the ground up. I think a willingness to say that we don't know and then build a toolkit to figure it out is a hallmark of CSSS and shows true expertise.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a large project in the South Pacific where we're focusing on adoption and fosterage, and the potential benefits that those children can provide to their households. The next thing that I study will be around understanding conception and experiences of individuals with disabilities and how that affects family functioning.
When I was at the National Science Foundation, my emphasis was on broadening participation in research. Not only for social justice reasons, but also because we know diversity improves science. We’re increasingly appreciating that scientists can leverage our personal experiences to improve our interpretations, by adding more diversity to the kinds of inferences we can draw.
Q: What advice do you feel is most important for trainees and graduate students today?
A: I think grad students can sometimes feel like they're more marginal than they are – or feel at the whim of their programs or their advisors. I remember feeling that way on occasion. But now, as a professor, I think students should feel central and empowered to advocate for their interests, starting from the belief that their programs and supervisors want to do anything they can to help!
At UW, the presence of interdisciplinary programs there like CSSS and the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology was huge for me. I never would have gotten the job at the National Science Foundation without having that really broad toolkit and repertoire to build on. So, I also think embracing a mindset of intellectual curiosity makes graduate students really successful – and luckily it's very easy to nourish that mindset at the University of Washington.
Q: What was one of your favorite spots around the UW campus or the university district in Seattle?
A: Parnassus Cafe down in the art school! [closed in Jan. 2023 after 71 years]. That was my number-one favorite. Anthro students hung out there a lot. It was a great spot to do homework and have some really good coffee. I've moved all over the place and I've never had coffee as good as in Seattle.
Q: What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately that you’d recommend?
A: I’ve been thinking about some writing and comments by Kurt Vonnegut about why it’s good to be bad at things you enjoy.
The idea is basically that being good at hobbies is not the point of doing them. I have a disability that was diagnosed a few years ago — it’s completely rocked my existence and made me focus a lot more on the balance of personal life and work. So now, I'm playing the harp and I even did an open mic night recently. I’m doing all sorts of interesting things in music that I would have been too timid to do before. I think just pursuing your passions is important and fun, whether you're good at them or not!
Photos from Mattison's academic journey: (1) Near her current home in Bosque, New Mexico. (2) With her team in Vanuatu. (3) Infusing medication in a hotel as a "disabled academic on the move" getting ready to give a talk at Cornell.