College:College of Sciences
Degree Program:Integrative Anthropological Sciences PhD
Research Focus:Domestication and agriculture
Melissa Gomez has always been fascinated by the human experience. From a young age, she knew that she wanted to learn more about what makes us human and set out to study humanity from a scientific perspective. “I chose anthropology because I wanted to understand humans, learn about what makes us so similar and yet so different, what we believe in, and how we celebrate everyday life in a variety of cultures all over the world,” she says.
The first-generation student is currently working on her third degree from UCF, a PhD in anthropology. For her dissertation, Gomez is continuing the research she began during her undergraduate studies, which involved chemically analyzing rodent bones and teeth from the 15th-century pre-Colombian Bahamas to understand their diet. The project enabled her to understand their early domestication practices and helped fund her graduate career due to its success.
Gomez is passionate about her work for personal reasons as well. “The work I do in the Caribbean now is directly related to my heritage. I am a first-generation Cuban American, and my ancestry includes the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the Taino, the same group I am researching that resided in the pre-Colombian Bahamas,” she says. The Taino were a large population with many connected tribes across the Caribbean and South America, which Gomez was unaware of before beginning her project. “Doing this work has connected me to my ancestors, and learning about them in this way is knowledge I probably never would have gained otherwise, so it is definitely more than just research for me.”
Through her studies, also Gomez learned the importance of cultural relativism. “Something we learn immediately in anthropology is that you cannot research or even view another culture that is foreign to your own without bringing your personal bias to the table,” she says. “We must work to remove these preconceived notions of what we consider ‘the norm’ and realize that one must view things objectively to get to the truth.”
Gomez loves studying at UCF and says the institution is a large part of her life. She enjoys the broad range of classes in her discipline and the diversity in the anthropology program. Gomez also appreciates the professors, advisors, and mentors within the anthropology department; and feels they are all amazing, specifically Dr. Lana Williams and Dr. Pete Sinelli. She says Williams offered her opportunities that led to her interest in research and drive to become a biological archaeologist. “Because of Dr. Williams, I was able to step off a plane in Egypt as a working archaeologist and take part in an ongoing international excavation effort, and I will forever be grateful,” she says. “Dr. Sinelli gave me the same opportunity in the Caribbean to work on an ongoing excavation that led to my current research; we will continue this work for the foreseeable future.”
For her academic endeavors, Gomez has received various awards. She received top honors at the Showcase of Undergraduate Research two years in a row for her research into the domestication practices of the Bahamian hutia rodent. Gomez was also the recipient of the Trevor Colbourn Endowment Fund to assist with her research; and received the Research and Mentoring Program (RAMP) Fellowship twice, which has funded her entire graduate career. “I have been very fortunate as continuing education would likely not have been feasible for me otherwise,” she says.
Gomez plans to graduate in 2025 and give back to her community through education. She aims to become a professor and start a podcast to share the information she has learned through her studies to help bridge the learning gap for those who do not have the resources to attain higher education.
- Received top honors at the Showcase of Undergraduate Research two years in a row
- Trevor Colbourn Endowment Fund recipient
- Research and Mentoring Program (RAMP) Fellowship recipient
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