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Amy Rector
Stephanie Gross
Amy Rector

Graduate Unearths Truths About Human Evolution

May 1, 2000 -- Although she'll only be 19 when she graduates from the University of Virginia on May 21, Amy Lynn Rector is already engaged in world-class research that will likely shed insights on the origins of humans.

At 18 she was accepted by the Institute for Human Origins to participate in a field study in South Africa, where a team of top scholars in the human origins field is attempting to reconstruct the environment that existed three million years ago when hominids, the group of human-like species from which humans likely evolved, roamed the area. Camping for six weeks near an old hyena den, team members searched for fossils and identified bones and animals in an effort to understand the ecology that supported the early hominids. Rector may be one of the youngest people to work at such an excavation site.

In recognition of such pioneering work, the Institute for Human Origins has awarded Rector a six-year fellowship to pursue a master's and doctorate in paleoecology, the study of ancient environments, at Arizona State University after she earns a B.A. in archaeology from U.Va. It appears she will be a stand-out in the small, highly competitive field of human evolution, her advisor, Jeffrey Hantman said.

"Amy will be among the first generation to conduct research in South Africa after Apartheid," said Hantman, director of U.Va.'s archaeology program. "With her combination of motivation, maturity and intelligence, as well as her ability to ask the bigger philosophical questions, Amy Rector has it all."

Rector's love of archaeology began in the third grade after reading the novel, "Clan of the Cave Bear" -- a book that Hantman assigns to students in his U.Va. class. "After reading that book, there was no turning back. I've wanted to study human evolution ever since," Rector remembers.

The daughter of Dean and Kathy Rector of Richmond, she enrolled at 15 in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted at Mary Baldwin College. She transferred as a second-year student to U.Va. at 16. "Those in the orientation session for transfer students teased me when they found out how old I was, but it's never been a problem since. I think they've forgotten how old I am," Rector said, noting that the students are now her roommates and best friends.

Fascinated by evolution because it encompasses so many disciplines, such as geology, biology, philosophy and religion, Rector thrived on the hard work at the South African site. Team members rose at dawn to engage in such practices as breaking rocks with sledge hammers to look for fossils or excavating a mountaintop site to gain clues about the animals and vegetation that existed three million years ago. The researchers are trying to piece together an understanding of what environment the hominids evolved and prospered in.

From such experience Rector wrote a distinguished-major thesis on the basic methods of environmental reconstruction. "Ten years from now I think Amy will have contributed tremendous field work and publications on our human ancestors in Ethiopia and South Africa," Hantman said.

Although devoted to the study of human evolution, Rector has pursued other interests at U.Va. She has been active in the Honor Society and in club sports. She has served as vice president and president of Phi Eta Sigma sorority, and she is a member of the Golden Key and the National Society for Collegiate Scholars.

Despite her many accomplishments, Rector is modest. If pressed to offer advice to other young, gifted students, she suggests, "Never be arrogant. Just do the work."

For more information, Rector can be reached through May 12 at (804) 923-3795.

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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