Most Interesting People 2014: Denise Su

Denise Su


Why she's interesting: The Cleveland Museum of Natural History's curator of paleobotany and paleoecology was among a team of researchers who discovered a juvenile skull of the fossil ape Lufengpithecus in Yunnan Province, China. Skulls of apes and hominins — particularly those of infants and young juveniles — are extremely rare. This is only the second relatively complete skull of its kind in the entire Miocene record of fossil apes throughout the Old World.

Field Guide: As a 5-year-old, Su was fascinated by Early Man, a volume in a set of Time-Life books her parents bought for her and her older sisters. "It had this picture of a Neanderthal skull on the front cover. I loved that book! I loved going through it — I loved the pictures. Now, I have to admit part of it may be because my older sister hated that book. She would hide it, and then I would go find it."

Love Connection: Su is married to Yohannes Haile-Selassie, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's curator of physical anthropology. The couple, who met as students at the University of California at Berkeley, maintained a commuter marriage until she left her position as assistant professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia, for her current job 18 months ago. But proximity to her husband isn't the first office perk she mentions — flexibility in scheduling fieldwork in far-flung locales is. "I get to basically take off whenever I need to."

Into the Wild: Su frequents sites in Africa, known as the birthplace of human lineage, primarily those in Tanzania. "There's no running water. There's no electricity. We're basically camping in the field for about a month or so." There are, however, wild animals. "At night, you can hear the lions and hyenas going at each other, and sometimes they're very close by to camp."

Unexpected Discovery: Su focuses on studying the past environments in which humans evolved 3 million to 6 million years ago by looking at fossils of animals and plants. She traveled to the Yunnan Province site at a mentor's invitation to examine the environment in which elephant fossils, dated 5 million to 10 million years old, were found. While she was there, she shared in the excitement as colleagues brushed sediments away from the juvenile ape cranium. "It was just this little face staring out at you from the ground. It was really amazing! I actually stood there for a while, just staring [back] at it."

Weather Woes: During a summer trip to Tanzania in 2001, a succession of storms filled the skies with lightning and turned dry creek beds into dangerous rushing streams. "We could do very little fieldwork. We essentially had to push our Land Cruiser everywhere, because it would get stuck in the mud."

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