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Christopher Schmitt, Ph.D.

Schmitt is making inroads in primatology research and providing support for other LGBTQQIAA+ researchers.

Christopher Schmitt, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology and biology, Boston University. Photo credit: Lisa Larson

A scholarship to work as a field assistant in northern Argentina during a high school summer introduced Christopher Schmitt, now an assistant professor of anthropology and biology at Boston University, to primate study. Collecting the excreta of black and gold howler monkeys as they brawled and romped about, Schmitt realized that the experience “was challenging and hilarious, and I was hooked.” 

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A year of studying behavioral development in the white-faced capuchins of Costa Rica reaffirmed Schmitt’s commitment to pursuing a career in primatology. This also laid the foundation for their doctoral research at New York University on behavioral studies in woolly and spider monkeys in Ecuador’s Amazon.

Through postdoctoral training, Schmitt came to work with the South African subspecies of wild savanna monkeys, known as vervet monkeys. “It was with this work that I started moving away from behavior and focusing on body condition and genomics,” they say. Along with collaborators at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, Schmitt used years of data from a 700-strong captive vervet population to identify genomic regions that are responsible for obesity and growth resulting in obesity. These genomic links reflected those previously seen in humans, signaling the vervet monkey’s importance as a model to study human obesity.

Most days in the field start early — Schmitt’s hours are filled with monkey trapping, sample collection, and processing. Field work takes them from the dusty red grasslands of South Africa to miniature rainforests in the Andean mountains of Peru.

Back in the lab that he co-leads, labeled SMAGL (a play on Tolkien’s Smeagol), Schmitt promotes an environment of equity and independence. Lab members adhere to a code of conduct, updated every year with student input, that outlines acceptable and unacceptable ways of interaction.

Photo credit: Andrew McFarland

Being queer has sometimes made field work risky for Schmitt. For instance, when they worked in The Gambia during the presidential tenure of Yahya Jammeh — the man who once threatened to slit the throats of his gay countrymen.

“Staying closeted for months at a time can be difficult enough — especially once you’ve been out for years, but active threats from folks with political power is exceptionally stressful,” they say.

On the other hand, Schmitt has also had “one of the most affirming moments” of their life while in the field, when they participated in an informal pride parade down an Amazonian trail with three other queer researchers. Schmitt’s personal experiences have highlighted “the importance of outliers for understanding the true scope of natural variation,” they say. 

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Schmitt volunteers their time to make queer researchers feel more welcome and better represented. They actively help cultivate visibility for other queer biologists through participation in the steering committee of the American Association of Biological Anthropology’s LGBTQQIAA+ Interest Group, as well as efforts to broaden access to such programs for other professional groups as a way to improve support for queer members. 

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B and paid for by the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

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