Research recap: Students working on new research in anthropology and environmental sciences

Anthropology grad student Jack McBride scans a monkey skull as part of his research into the roles of twins in primate evolution.

Western’s faculty and students are engaged in exciting research and scholarship across a variety of fields, from marine science and climate change to teaching, the humanities, and the arts. Want more research news? Go to Western's News Archive, and select "Research" from the category dropdown menu.

Brandon McWilliams: Let's talk empirical ecocriticism

How do the stories we read change the ways we engage with the environment? What does an adventurous solarpunk story about a tea monk and a robot on a moon called Panga tell us about ourselves? These questions are at the heart of Brandon McWilliams's (they/them) boundary-breaking and interdisciplinary research at Western. 

McWilliams is working towards their master's degree in environmental studies. Last spring, they were awarded Western’s Graduate Research and Creative Opportunities Grant to research the effects of hopeful climate fiction on climate anxiety and intent to act. As part of their study on hopeful climate fiction, McWilliams had 20 participants read A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers over the summer and conducted a series of interviews and surveys before and after participants finished reading the book.  

Brandon McWilliams

Before graduate school, McWilliams used to work with youth climate clubs in Seattle. During that time, they noted that the kids they worked with were very engaged with climate justice, but the kids were also very jaded.

“Something about how we’re talking about climate change isn’t working.” They were curious about the ways storytelling intersects with our behavior and wanted to learn more about “how the stories we consume impact our actions in the world,” McWilliams said. 

To investigate and understand the effects of our narratives about climate change, under the direction of their advisor, Professor of Environmental Studies David Rossiter, McWilliams is working and researching within a new field of ecocriticism: empirical ecocriticism.

According to McWilliams, empirical ecocriticism uses social science methods to test the claims of ecocriticism and is a way of empirically studying the theoretical claims of ecocriticism. 

McWilliams is already noticing some emerging themes from their study. They mentioned that people crave hopeful narratives, but participants struggle to imagine humans actually creating a future like the one in "A Psalm for the Wild-Built." Alongside their thesis research, McWilliams taught an environmental studies class in fall quarter on speculative climate hope. 

While McWilliams is still writing their thesis, they have plans to publish their research findings and help contribute to this understudied and newly emerging field. McWilliams stresses the importance of making their research accessible to a more general audience. 

“If you’re doing this stuff it needs to be applied,” they said, “Otherwise why are you doing it?” 

Jack McBride: Digging deep into primate evolution

Jack McBride is a second-year Anthropology master's degree student who focuses on litter size in primates. Specifically, McBride investigates the evolution of primate reproduction by focusing on twinning in American monkeys. Understanding the origin of twinning, and more about life history variation in general, has implications for conservation efforts, our understanding of habitat fragmentation, and human health and lifestyle.   

McBride was awarded Western's Graduate Research and Creative Opportunities Grant for his work on litter size in primates, which funded his coursework specializing in R, a program he can use to process large amounts of data into a digestible format.   

Under the direction and support of his advisor, Associate Professor of Anthropology Tesla Monson, McBride spent last summer in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian, where he collected 3D scans of almost 600 primate crania, primarily African and Asian colobine monkeys as well as some American monkeys. All these scans will be digitized and used both by students here at Western and hopefully elsewhere in the future. McBride’s time in D.C. was funded by Dr. Monson’s Leakey Foundation grant. McBride will present his research at the annual American Association of Biological Anthropologists Conference in Los Angeles. 

McBride got his bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology at University of Washington before coming to Western. Since beginning graduate school here, he says, “I’ve felt really, really supported by my mentor--it’s been an awesome experience. I’ve learned to be proactive about what it is I need. Western’s Department of Anthropology is so responsive, and I’ve gotten a lot of good hands-on lab experience while here.” 

As a teaching assistant, McBride says that one of the greatest parts of his experience as a grad student at Western has been his opportunity to teach.

“It’s given me practical experience, and I’m really keyed-in when it comes to the field of anthropology—ready to move forward,” he said.    

As for his time outside the lab, McBride loves scifi books and has a cat named Goose. During his time as a grad student in Bellingham, McBride he has enjoyed running the Padden Mudfest, put on by the Greater Bellingham Running Club. In the coming year, he will apply to doctoral programs in anthropology across the nation and hopes to be on faculty somewhere in the future.   

For more information about graduate programs at Western, visit