Walk this Way: Kimberleigh Tommy talks about how humans became bipedal

This week, we’re heading to South Africa to meet our next curator, Kim Tommy (@KimTommy92). Kim has recently obtained her Masters degree in paleoanthropology at the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Kim’s thesis examines theIMG_7235 evolution of upright walking in modern humans by studying the internal structure of the ankle bones. She has a passion for functional morphology and how the bodies of modern humans, living primates and extinct fossil hominins from Sterkfontein have evolved and adapted to thrive in the face of changing environments. Kim is also currently a science communicator at the Centre for Excellence in Palaeosciences at the University of Witwatersrand. South Africa has been home to some of the oldest hominid fossils and so holds the kets to a significant part of the story of human evolution. Here’s Kim’s STEM story.


When I was young, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt, I loved mummies and the pyramids and all of the mystery surrounding the lives of Pharaohs. I was also really curious/ unruly, I would make “experiments” in my family home using whatever I could get my hands on, mostly my mothers lotions and baby powder. My mind was made up when I was an undergraduate and I had a group project where we had to observe the behaviour of Spider Monkey named Sara at a monkey sanctuary outside of Johannesburg. When I saw the amazing way Sara was able to move through trees and how perfect her body was for what she was doing, it sparked an interest in functional morphology and locomotion.


I chose my current field because it combines my love for really old bones and mysteries with my interest in movement! I was introduced to functional morphology by chance in my honours year and I have had an incredible support system of academic supervisors that have cultivated my interestIMG_7271 even further! They have helped me answer questions and at the same time encouraged me to ask more!


I have recently obtained my MSc in palaeontology (with distinction and no corrections-something I am EXTREMELY proud of as you can tell lol). I am a palaeoanthropologist, focusing on the evolution of upright walking in humans by examining the internal trabecular structure of bones associated with walking. I look at patterns in the internal bone structure (trabecular structure) of the ankle (more specifically the end bit of the tibia or shin bone) of extinct hominins from Sterkfontein South Africa, called Australopithecus africanus. I then compare the patterns in the extinct hominin tibiae to patterns in the ankles of modern humans, that use bipedal walking to get around, and the other great apes that use a variety of locomotor methods like bipedal walking, brachiating through trees, climbing up tree trunks and walking on all fours on their knuckles. I can then use these results to make inferences about the locomotor and postural behaviours of these extinct hominins. My research aims to contribute to answering the question “when did we first walk on two legs and why?”


As a South African and an African in general, I feel that our fossil record is a source of national pride. We have an amazing record, we have found fossils for the evolution of multicellular organisms, the first land animals, gigantic dinosaurs and their babies still encased in their eggs, evidence of mass extinctions and the first mammals that gave rise to our species as we know it. Then of course there are the amazing fossil hominins that help us reconstruct our family tree. Apart from that, looking into our past and our evolution tells us a lot about our lives today, for example, is our 21st century couch potato lifestyle and inactivity affecting our bone remodeling and strength today? This is an interdisciplinary approach to science, using palaeoanthropology and our observations about the past to infer what our current lifestyles are doing to our bones in the present.


I am currently the science communications officer for the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, a funding body for the study of palaeontology in South Africa. My time is spent trying to connect palaeoscientists to the communities and in doing so, showcase some of the fantastic work being done in Africa and by African researchers. This job was made possible through my personal love of science communication, for most of my time as a masters student I entered local and national competitions and took to my own social media to try to engage with people regarding research work in a way that benefited everyone. I am an advocate for transformation and representation of women and people of colour in science. I write freelance articles for The Female Scientist regarding these topics. I love writing and was named one of South Africa’s Top 20 Postgraduate Science Writers in 2017 by Science Today.


I love yoga, it calms my mind which is often on the go all day. It has really helped me with my stress levels as a young academic, it is good to take time out of your day to quiet your mind. But then I also do boxing, and sometimes it’s also really good to punch something and get that frustration out of your system.


My ideal day off would probably be spent anywhere remote and outside of the city. Waking up to a sunrise over an open African plain (being from Johannesburg I appreciate a brownish gold highveld savanna plain personally). Having a cup of coffee, laying in the sun and reading a really cheesy romance novel. Then later replacing the coffee with a G&T! Alternatively, binge watching series in my bed is also a day well spent!


Please welcome Kim to Real Scientists!


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