Kelsey Jorgensen

Kelsey Jorgensen

Kelsey Jorgensen

PhD student in anthropology, focus in Andean bioculture

As an undergrad at San Diego State University, Kelsey Jorgensen dappled in cultural studies. But it was a summer stint at a bioarcheology field school in Menorca, an island off the coast of Spain, during her junior year that convinced her she wanted to be an anthropologist.

“I spent weeks meticulously excavating a high-status burial of an older male with the imprints of his rings still staining his fingers,” says Kelsey, now a PhD student in anthropology. “The mystery of who he was, how he died, what he liked to eat, and what his life might have been like, hooked me on using biology for broader understandings of culture. After I came back, I dove headfirst into everything to do with anthropology.”

That included a graduate education so she could keep studying ancient human remains (aDNA), she says.  

From the West Coast, she did her research on what mentors would be the best fit.

“I moved to Michigan to work with Dr. Julie Lesnik because she is incredibly supportive and matched my wide range of research interests.”  

Kelsey’s current research focuses on understanding the patterns of ancient human migration in the Peruvian Andes.

“By analyzing the genetic speciation of the Andean potato weevil, the primary pest of the Andean potato, I hypothesize that it is possible to recreate these migratory paths since people carried the domesticated potato (with the pest inside) from one isolated area to the next, creating the present-day niches of these weevil species.”

A versatile scholar, Kelsey takes classes at the medical school and biology department to better understand how genetics impacts her dissertation.

“Cross-disciplinary work is one of the best benefits of attending a research university like Wayne State.”

The multitude of study aboard programs at the university is another plus—a necessity, even, when your research explores peoples and places far from home.

In her two years at Wayne State, Kelsey has been to Peru twice. On the first trip, she arranged samples of Andean potato weevil bugs. On the second, she spent 8 weeks as a bioarcheologist crew chief in the Peruvian Andres at about 10,000 feet. There, she worked with other students and experts on a chullpa, “the Quechua word for an above-ground tomb,” site excavation, she says.

“It was a rustic and challenging environment to work in but I was extremely fortunate to learn from both archaeology experts and the amazingly kind local community.”

On that trip, Kelsey says she felt aspects of her dissertation start to come together.

“It’s one thing to read about how people live and thrive in the Andean mountains, and another to see it with your own eyes.”

She hopes that these experiences will prep her for a career as an educator outside the classroom. 

Her dream job? A “postdoctoral position at an aDNA laboratory studying ancient human migration. Then becoming a curator at the Smithsonian, where I can integrate research in aDNA with public outreach.”