Anthropology Chair Sabrina Agarwal talks about her students, research and ethics

April 1, 2024

UC Berkeley Anthropology Department Professor and Chair Sabrina Agarwal’s long career has made a big impact in her field of research, teaching and student mentorship. Her research focuses on age and sex-related changes in bone quantity and quality, as well as the application of biocultural and life course approaches to the study of bone health to examine the dynamics of gender and social inequality in the past and present. As a Canadian ex-patriot, Agarwal received her Masters of Science and Ph.D. at the University of Toronto and her postdoctoral training at McMaster University before joining the UC Berkeley faculty 20 years ago.

Since then, Professor Agarwal has been awarded UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award and Award for Graduate Student Instructor mentorship, and she currently serves as Chair of the Anthropology Department. She enjoys mentoring her graduate students and fostering a productive academic community for both faculty and students to thrive. Agarwal serves as a special advisor to Chancellor Carol Christ and a member of various committees, and she advocates for the respectful treatment and repatriation of ancestral remains, navigating complex ethical dilemmas with empathy and integrity.

Professor Agarwal recently spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences about her academic career. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell us more about your background and how you ended up at UC Berkeley?
Sabrina Agarwal: Well, I am Canadian, and I completed all of my training in Canada: my M.Sc and Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, and a postdoc at McMaster. I have been here at UC Berkeley for 20 years now, making it my first job. I came to Berkeley for the excellence in research, and as an anthropologist, this is one of the leading programs and departments globally. But I stayed and flourished when I realized how special Berkeley is – to maintain that excellence, to be ranked with private colleges while still being a public institution that serves a diverse student body in our state and country, is huge. I think people outside do not really realize how valuable and special that is – and how special that makes our students, faculty and staff that choose to be part of that.

What are your proudest achievements at UC Berkeley?
Sabrina Agarwal: I think being awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest teaching recognition on our campus, and the award for mentorship of graduate student instructors. Teaching our undergraduates and mentoring graduate students in teaching has been a great source of personal growth and joy for me.

What is your role as Chair of the Department of Anthropology?
Sabrina Agarwal: Well, the administrative part of the role is with the faculty overseeing the finances, hires, promotions and curriculum. The exciting part is getting to work on ways to better serve my faculty, undergraduate and graduate students. My goal is to highlight our achievements and successes and help the anthropology community on campus to flourish and do its best.

As a professor, what do you like most about working with your students?
Sabrina Agarwal: I enjoy learning with my students – they expand my knowledge and approach to my research and life and inspire me. My graduate students that come from a diversity of backgrounds are on a path to continue building and contributing to our area of the field – making new discoveries, thoughts, or ways to better understand the world.

Tell us more about your research?
Sabrina Agarwal: I’m a biological anthropologist and a bioarchaeologist. I look at health and disease by looking at ancient archeological remains together with archaeological, historical and archival data, focusing on age, sex and gender-related changes in bone health. I am engaged in applying research in health to dialogues of social identity, embodiment, developmental plasticity and inequality in bioarchaeology.

I have examined age-and growth-related changes in cortical bone microstructure, trabecular architecture, bone mineral density and bone strength in several historic British and Italian archaeological populations. I've also studied the long-term effects of growth and reproduction (parity and lactation) on the human and non-human primate maternal skeleton, utilizing samples from prehistoric Turkey and Japan.

My current research also delves into the bioethics of skeletal biology and bioarchaeology, particularly focusing on the practice and ethics of curation and repatriation of skeletal and ancestral remains. I currently serve as a special advisor to the Chancellor and member of the UC Berkeley Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Advisory Implementation Committee, as well as the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains (TCETHER) of the American Anthropological Association.

You study bones from different periods and places such as medieval Italy. How do you combine science and history to learn more about people from different historical periods, and what's one of the most surprising things you've found in your research?
Sabrina Agarwal: One of the most surprising or significant things I have learned in studying bone aging and osteoporosis in women is that it is not a predetermined disease caused solely by predictable deterministic forces like sex or aging. It is not inevitable, but determined by experiences over the life course, encompassing many trajectories and outcomes. Factors such as diet, exercise, as well as experiences in utero and socio-environmental contexts, play crucial roles. I have observed and demonstrated these different trajectories by examining communities from various time periods and locations in the past.

How do you make complex topics like bone research interesting and understandable to your students?
Sabrina Agarwal: I try! I enjoy it when people are able to relate these topics to their own lives or experiences with their own families and communities — like thinking about how your own bones can get bigger with what you do like the dominant hand used for writing or the arm utilized for playing tennis.

You're involved in making sure the study of old bones is done ethically. Why is this important, and what are some of the tough decisions you have to make about studying and handling these bones?
Sabrina Agarwal: Looking at human remains is not unethical. What is unethical is the study of ancestral remains from historical contexts of racism and violence. Descendant communities, in all the ways it can be construed, need to be involved in studying and often returning historical material. Many colleagues can be upset by discussions or calls to repatriate ancestors that they have in the past been able to use even legally in the past or they feel should be ethical — so having those discussions or truth telling can be tough.

Many contemporary contexts where human remains are found or used in research, the communities involved have their own beliefs and wishes regarding what should be done. It is equally important for the public to understand the contexts where studying and working with human remains is necessary and the ways descendant communities determine and wish to participate in that work. When research is conducted with these ethical considerations as part of the everyday ethos in the field, it becomes not difficult, but rather rewarding and meaningful.