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Luca Pozzi: Inspiring change through the wonder of science

April 27, 2021
Luca Pozzi: Inspiring change through the wonder of science

Profile photo of Luca Pozzi

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Luca Pozzi is on a mission to make science more accessible. Employing an interdisciplinary approach to his teaching and research, Pozzi strives to help students see the childlike curiosity at the heart of scientific discovery, while ensuring they have a solid foundation in the scientific method. Pozzi says his own awareness of human perception and impact on the natural world fuel his efforts to transform students’ appreciation of science and empower them to use their knowledge as a catalyst for change.

Pozzi has always been interested in the biological sciences. He pursued a bachelor’s degree in biology and then a master’s degree in animal conservation and biodiversity from the University of Torino in Italy. However, it wasn’t until his doctoral studies at New York University that he discovered the field of biological anthropology. This new field expanded Pozzi’s understanding of the biological world by adding the critical component of human impact. Today, his research interests center on primate biodiversity and conservation.

“I realized how critical it is to connect natural and social sciences to conserve biodiversity,” says Pozzi. “There’s no way that you can do conservation work without understanding both the natural and human side.”

His interdisciplinary background in both the natural and social sciences developed into a distinct philosophy: Pozzi believes you can never fully understand a problem in its complexity without hearing other perspectives, a viewpoint that is particularly helpful in the study of evolution. Because evolutionary experiments are impossible to conduct in the present day, historical science is used to reconstruct what happened millions of years ago. This often involves drawing from other disciplines to help paint a clearer picture of evolutionary process.

Advancements in genetic technology, specifically with extracting DNA from extinct specimen and fossils, allow for further insight into evolutionary processes. This technology is the backbone for Pozzi’s current National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research project, which involves collecting genetic data from museum specimen in historical collections. This project will provide new information on species and groups of primates that is almost impossible to acquire in the wild. 

“At the conservation level, we don’t have a time machine, but I think historical samples are the closest thing to a time machine that we have. We can actually understand genetic diversity so many years ago and track how it has changed over time and how populations have been impacted by human activity,” says Pozzi.

Pozzi likens evolution to a giant puzzle you’re trying to put together with only three pieces. By incorporating different fields and approaches, you can better reconstruct the puzzle to advance your understanding. This interdisciplinary approach also extends into Pozzi’s teaching methods.

Since joining the UTSA faculty in 2016, Pozzi has encountered many students who view science as a monolithic discipline where only the exceptional thrive. This causes students to put up a mental wall, inhibiting them from seeing science as an attainable field of study. In reality, Pozzi says, science is a constantly changing field where failure is not only inevitable, it’s welcomed. 

“I think people have this idea of science as this solid, indestructible set of truths or knowledge. That is not necessarily the case,” says Pozzi. “A scientist who doesn’t change his mind is a bad scientist.”

Understanding the anxiety many students feel toward science, Pozzi encourages his students to connect the subject with their everyday experiences. For example, in his core courses, Pozzi tasks students with finding misconceptions about evolution in the media. The resulting variety of examples his students bring for discussion helps them realize that science is not only approachable, but it can also overlap with their areas of interest.

Luca Pozzi at the Grand CanyonIn many of his classes, Pozzi also assigns an educational outreach component. Students are tasked with simplifying a difficult concept to teach to students at particular grade level. This practice encourages students to see the impact of education on the broader community, while helping them feel more comfortable articulating their scientific knowledge.

Through such class activities that promote deep learning, Pozzi helps his students find the relatability between science and their other areas of interest. This solid foundation in and appreciation for the scientific process demonstrates to his students that, rather than being a field of absolute facts, science is instead a never-ending search for a better answer.

In his relatively short time at UTSA, Pozzi has won the admiration of many students and colleagues alike for his teaching approach. In 2020, he was honored with the UTSA President’s Distinguished Achievement Award for Core Curriculum Teaching.

One student’s review of Pozzi’s Introduction to Anthropology course demonstrates his dedication to student engagement: “Professor Luca Pozzi is truly one of the best professors I have ever had, his work ethic was unfaltering and throughout his teachings, he was not hesitant to make sure every student was clear on the lectures.”

Pozzi’s commitment to making education more accessible also extends into his class texts. Rather than burden his students with an expensive and, as he admits, boring textbook, Pozzi has taken it upon himself to choose more approachable and engaging texts for his courses.

“One of my dreams in life would be to write a popular science book,” he says. “Engaging people in very complex scientific data and facts while keeping them entertained is difficult, but I think it is a powerful way to communicate science.”

Outside of the classroom, Pozzi is involved in his department’s Core Curriculum Assessment Coordinators, Graduate Curriculum Committee, Annual Merit Review Committee, and chairs the Teaching Assistant Committee. He is a member of UTSA’s LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Association as well as the International Primatological Society, Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. He was also recently honored with the 2021 Researcher of the Year Award from the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts.

In making science more approachable and fun, Pozzi wants to dismantle the stoic, serious scientist stereotype to reveal the curiosity and excitement of the field and its capacity for collaboration and discovery. In doing so, Pozzi aims to not only dispel students’ anxiety about science but inspire them to use their knowledge to improve the world around them.

Luca Pozzi teaches the following courses:

  • ANT 2033 Intro: Biological Anthropology
  • ANT 3963 The Evolution of Sex
  • ANT 4413 Genes, Health & Ancestry
  • ANT 4363 Primate Evolutionary Biology
  • ANT 5043 Lab Methods in Anthropology

Read more Faculty Features about other interesting and accomplished faculty at UTSA.