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Steel mill chemist plans career change after retirement

Johanna Anstak is busy making her mark in archaeology field

Friday Jan 09, 2015

When speaking with Johanna Anstak about her educational pursuits, the work she’s doing sounds glamorous enough to be the subject of a movie or television series, or perhaps the memoir of a well-traveled field researcher.

The Indiana University Northwest student speaks passionately about the specialties of petrography, osteology, forensic archaeology and researching skeletal remains from faraway places. She dreams of one day opening a lab that would specialize in analyzing artifacts and possibly human remains. She is working towards co-authoring research about the work she’s done on Native American skeletons.

For those who have ever wondered what can be done with an anthropology degree, the 50-year-old Crown Point resident is about to show the world. In fact, the dual anthropology and geology major is blending a number fields to craft her ideal career.

What’s especially unique about Anstak’s journey is not so much that she is embarking on a career change at 50, but that she is doing it in an extremely competitive, niche field.

Anstak’s original trade is in the sciences. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and an associate’s degree in chemistry from Calumet College of St. Joseph in the late 1980s, she began working as a microbiologist for a dairy company. Then, she went to U.S. Steel, where she now works in the Coke Plant Quality Assurance Department as a chemical analyst.

She plans to retire early from this career, at the age of 57, “because I want to do what I want to do,” and she is well aware of the challenges inherent in what she wants to do.

“I’ll be a retiree trying to get into a new field,” she said, “and competing against 20-somethings with PhDs.”

But that’s OK. Anstak has a plan. It’s to seek out and seize every opportunity to showcase her talents and rise to the top of the pack.

“That’s why I need to learn everything I can and that’s why I need to put myself out there,” she said.

Any insecurity she might have ever had about her educational choices seem to lessen with each new opportunity, all of which have given her unparalleled expertise. Like being approached by an archaeologist from Armenia, for example, to help diagnose the deformities and plate the craniometrics of a skull. The archaeologist had asked for a contact at a recent professional conference and was referred to Anstak for her expertise with this particular type of skull.

Such opportunities, though they seem incredibly unique and rare, are attainable for any IU Northwest student who puts forth the initiative as Anstak has.

“If you want to learn something, volunteer yourself. Put yourself out there. Ask professors if they need help on research,” Anstak said.

One of Anstak’s favorite opportunities came when the late Anthropology Professor Kathy Forgey, Ph.D. introduced Anstak to Anne Grauer, Ph.D., chair of the Anthropology Department at Loyola University. Grauer needed help with a task mandated by the Native American Grave Repatriation Act (NAGRA), in which museums are required to give the skeletal remains they have of Native Americans back to their tribes – in full skeletons. So Anstak went to work alongside Grauer, who served as her mentor while the two met each Friday at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for nearly two years. They worked to piece together the skeletons which had been separated and placed into drawers categorized by bone type.

This opportunity, in which Anstak had been awarded an IU Northwest undergraduate research grant to undertake, taught her so much about osteology and forensics that she has become somewhat of an authority on the subject and is now firmly rooted in her intended career path. She continues to get as much instruction as she can about skeletal remains from as many sources as possible. She is involved in professional organizations, such as the Biological Archaeology and Forensic Anthropology Association (BARFAA), the Paleo-Pathology Association, and the American Archaeology Association.

Once she graduates from IU Northwest, expected in 2017, Anstak intends to apply to graduate school. With only a handful of schools in the U.S. that offer studies in her specialized field, it’s unclear where she’ll enroll, but whatever school she attends, she hopes to one day return to Northwest Indiana.

“I like it here so much I’d like to come back and teach here,” Anstak said. “Once I get my Ph.D., or at least my master’s degree, I’d like to come back to IU Northwest as an adjunct faculty member.”

Another aspect of her post-retirement career plan is to open her own lab. There is only one lab in the country that specializes in analyzing the petrography of ancient pottery, she said, so this would provide a needed resource for archaeologists. Eventually, she would like to branch into human identification.

“There aren’t many labs in this area that deal with geo-archaeology,” she said. “As far as human identification, there are only a handful right now in the country. One is run by military and the rest are run by forensic anthropologists. I envision a lab that would assist our local law enforcement agencies.”

Anstak’s post-retirement plan is carefully planned out, yet slow-going at times. She puts in 40 hours a week at her steel mill job, while taking anywhere between four and 12 credit hours per semester. A complicated blood disorder has derailed her journey a bit, yet despite three heart attacks, three strokes, and a couple of open heart surgeries, Anstak shows little frustration about these bumps in the road.

Perhaps it’s part of her stay healthy plan. If the key to health lies in doing what you love, Anstak is definitely taking positive steps toward wellness.

“I think the best thing about IU Northwest is that I’ve gotten some good experiences here,” she said.

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