Student Spotlight: Ximena Smith

| Thu, 10/06/22
Ximena Smith
Department of Anthropology graduate student Ximena Smith. Photo by Devin Bittner.

Ximena Smith is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in underwater archaeology through Florida State University’s Department of Anthropology, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Smith earned her associate degree in anthropology from Tallahassee Community College in 2019, and she earned her bachelor’s degree, also in anthropology, from FSU in 2020. Smith has also been a graduate teaching assistant since 2021. This year, she earned funding from the Society for American Archaeology Historically Underrepresented Groups Scholarship, the PaleoWest Endowed Award for Student Excellence in Anthropology and the FSU Internship Fund.

What year are you in school, and when do you expect to graduate?

I am a second-year graduate student, and I’m expecting to graduate in May 2023.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

I was born and raised in Miami, and I moved to Tallahassee in 2003. My little sister was attending undergrad at FSU, and she was lonely and homesick, so I moved up here to be near her. I began working for the state in public health, and I ended up staying in Tallahassee even after my sister graduated from FSU College of Law and moved back to South Florida. Unfortunately, in 2015, my little sister passed away. Subsequent events led me to rethink my life, career and future goals. After deciding to go back to school for archaeology, attending my sister’s alma mater was the natural choice. Although walking FSU’s beautiful campus can sometimes be emotionally difficult, it also makes me feel like she is always close by and rooting for me to succeed, even on the bad days. She always spoke highly of her time at FSU, and after completing my undergraduate degree here, I understood why she felt that way. I felt the same when it was time for me to apply to graduate programs, so that’s why I stayed.

What inspired you to pursue a master’s degree in underwater archaeology?

My family jokes that I could swim before I could walk. My high school had a marine science program, and I took full advantage by participating in field projects along Key Biscayne. I’ve also always loved dirt and rocks, and as a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist and a marine biologist. As a young adult, I worked in public health administration, specifically behavioral health administration, for about 13 years. Seeing my work positively impact people was incredibly fulfilling, especially because I’ve lived in a household with loved ones who have mental health issues and substance use disorders, as well as having my own behavioral health issues. Working in public health showed me the importance of knowing people at their most intrinsic levels, since that's the only real way to ensure successful support. This is what shifted my sights from paleontology to anthropology/archaeology. I realized I could marry my two dream jobs, marine science and social science, by studying underwater archaeology. Researching from this lens allows me to understand humans through the scope of when, where, how and why they created ways of living in and around the marine ecological systems over time.

Tell us about your master’s thesis work.

My thesis work involves comprehensive analysis of archaeological sites along the South American Pacific coast that were occupied thousands of years ago during the Late Pleistocene. Although the coastline isn’t large geographically, it does present four very different ecological environments. The current accepted theories regarding the peopling of western South America indicate a north to south migration route by the same ancestral groups. I hypothesize that because these people assumedly share the same ancestry, the materials and technologies excavated from each region will be similar and that differences in these artifacts will be solely due to environmental factors like what materials were available for tool production. I hope my research will be able to provide more quantitative and qualitative data for understanding the initial occupation of South America. The migration into the Americas is the longest human migration since the evolution of Homo sapiens. Therefore, the method, manner, and reasoning of this migration pose important research questions within the scientific community. By learning more about the ways in which ancient people adapted to their surroundings, we could potentially discover new methods of adapting to our ever-evolving modern world as well.

What aspect of your areas of study do you find most rewarding?

It would have to be when an archaeological find, whether it be cultural material or data, provides information and strengthens the knowledge of a group’s historical identity, ancestral lands and cultural history.

Tell us about your recent field work in Peru.

I spent five weeks in Peru this summer, two of which were spent participating in a bioarcheological project where we excavated four burials in an area near the southern coast. It was an incredible experience that elicited a broad range of emotions. We then spent two weeks in Arequipa inputting data and preparing artifacts for collections. I spent the last week in Chuquibamba, a city approximately 9,600 feet above sea level. We spent nights in Chuquibamba, and during the day, we would drive into the Andes mountains to search and survey archaeological sites at even higher altitudes ranging from 13,500-15,000 feet. While traveling within these peaks, I was able to see Inca settlements, burial sites and rock shelters, and I found lithic and ceramic artifacts that ranged in dates over several thousands of years of occupation in the area.

What is something people don’t know about studying a discipline in the anthropological field?

There is a common misconception that we’re “treasure hunters.” Our goal isn’t to find “shiny” things, but rather to understand humans through time and space. We care more about an object’s context than its present-day worth. Additionally, underwater archaeology includes more than fresh or salt-water diving; it encompasses all the ways humans have utilized bodies of water in order to fulfill their basic survival and cultural needs.

What on-campus resources have helped you achieve success?

I have used various resources within FSU Libraries, but the biggest resource for me has been the staff within the Department of Anthropology. A university can have all the fancy resources money can buy, but without expert professors who genuinely care about their students, none of it would matter.

Are there any faculty or staff who have helped or inspired you?

Anthropology chair Tanya Peres, associate professor Rochelle Marrinan, assistant professor Jessi Halligan, and teaching faculty member Choeeta Chakrabarti have all deeply inspired me and are the main motivation behind why I chose to return to FSU for grad school. The department’s professors are truly experts in their respective areas, and the amount of firsthand knowledge they bring is incredible. They truly care about my success as a student, and as a human being, which means a lot.

Following your graduation, what are your plans? Even though you might miss FSU, what are you looking forward to once you graduate?

I recently received my Ecuadorian citizenship. My mom is Ecuadorian, and a lot of my most memorable moments growing up were spent in the coastal areas of Ecuador. I hope to pursue my doctorate at the Universidad de San Francisco, specifically its satellite program in the Galapagos Islands, where I would use anthropology to develop marine conservation policy and regulation through identification of sustainable fishing practices. I hope to focus my research on the interrelationships between humans and marine fauna, or the plants, animals and other organisms that live in salt or brackish water. I want to focus specifically on sharks since they are vital to nearly all ecosystems.