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‘Science answers how and religion why’

A Greek appearance among the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2007 is certainly a distinction to be proud of. An article co-authored by Dr Katerina Harvati, permanent researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and associate professor at the City University of New York, was chosen by Time magazine as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2007. Harvati was born and raised in Athens. She entered law school but quickly realized that it was not what she wanted to do and left for America to study at Columbia University. One degree led to another and she received international recognition last year while working with a research team of geologists, archaeologists, biologists and anthropologists on evidence which proves that humans today have their roots in Africa. Harvati modestly said: «It was a great honor that I had not expected. I actually learnt about it from friends. Our research, however, continues.» How did your family react when you decided to abandon law studies? They were shocked. I had just got into university, and a good school at that, and they couldn’t believe it when I suddenly decided to give it up. I managed to convince them that I was not lawyer material. What did your parents do? My father was an engineer and my mother for many years was a housewife before she opened her own store. Were there times when you worried about whether you had made the right decision? Never. If there is something that I am absolutely certain about it is that. How did you get involved in anthropology? In the first year we did a little of all the subjects. I found anthropology fascinating, I got my degree in biological anthropology and then I continued my doctorate at the Natural History Museum and the City University, both of which are in New York. When examining a skull do you wonder how they were as a person, how they lived and thought? Of course. A part of science is to try and recreate the way of life of our predecessors. Naturally we need details concerning the archaeological location of the find. In this particular case [which the award-winning article was about] we did not have anything else to go on. We had to make hypotheses as there was no label on the bones saying, «My name is so and so.» This skull probably belongs to a man, he was a food gatherer like his contemporaries and his behavior was quite advanced, in many ways similar to ours. At that time they had musical instruments, sculptures and wall paintings in the caves. How much of your time is dedicated to your work? Teaching, research and study take up most of the 24-hour day. Fortunately I do not have too many classes in Germany at the moment and I do not have to work every night once I have put the children to bed. How are Greek scientists regarded in scientific circles abroad? I spent most of my time in the US. As all of my degrees are from American universities I was fully accepted. There was never any issue of nationality. In America if you are good at something you are American. What’s your life like in Germany? Leipzig is a small town. It does not have the excitement of a city but at the moment I am focused on my work and family. Is there something that you miss about Greece? I miss the sun and the warmth of the people. I also miss my family. Do the rewards correspond to the amount of time and effort you dedicate to your work? I don’t think anyone becomes a scientist to make money. The rewards are considerable but not financially. I mean the satisfaction one gets. This does not mean the salaries are low, at least not abroad. What’s your next objective? I want to gather all the data from the fossil archives in one work so as to provide an overall picture of man’s evolution over the last 500,000 years. Do your daughters understand what sort of work you do? Absolutely. They have visited a dig, they have touched the bones, they have examined them and they don’t find the skulls frightening. When they see a skeleton they can tell you if it is a Neanderthal. What dreams do you have for your daughters? Apart from the obvious, to be healthy and happy, I would like them to become scientists but they will have to decide for themselves. Is your faith in conflict with your scientific knowledge? I sorted out this problem early thanks to a theology teacher I had in secondary school who told us about the allegorical interpretation of religion. Science and religion are not in conflict as they provide answers to different questions. Science answers how and religion why. If God made the world in seven days this can be interpreted symbolically. When was the last time you felt proud of something? I am proud of my daughters every day. So the last time was probably this morning.