WHEATON – When she was in elementary school, Kasia Szremski went with her family to see an exhibit of Pre-Columbian works at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Her grandmother studied archaeology in college, and while the rest of her family wandered off, bored, Kasia became enraptured with the ancient cultures and the information about them her grandmother shared.
From that day on, the future archaeologist was hooked.
“Essentially, I am paid to go to exotic locations and play in the dirt,” she said. “Beyond that, I love the challenge of it – trying to figure out a giant puzzle, trying to reconstruct a society by what they left behind.”
The former Wheaton North High School and Illinois Math and Science Academy student is a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University. She is completing fieldwork in Sayan and Lima, Peru, trying to understand how local populations coexisted peacefully while sharing resources between 1000 and 1470 A.D. and sharing her findings with the local population.
“Unlike other civilizations in the area, in the Huanangue Valley where I am, things were pretty peaceful between the groups, and I’m trying to figure out why,” she said. “They were working together to use their resources, whereas other places had much more violence and struggle for control.”
Exploring how people from different backgrounds were forced together and still able to cooperate can teach lessons today, she said. For Szremski, the work is a study in power and diplomacy.
During her time in the impoverished Sayan area, Kasia has faced everything from life-threatening altitude sickness to tarantulas, pumas and vipers to quicksand and mudslides.
She once was forced to build a bridge out of a pair of large logs and some string over a raging river to get herself and a group of students to safety. While she was testing it, part of the wood broke out from under her, and she nearly fell in.
In another incident, she had to be led to safety by a woman on a goat path as mudslide water ran around her.
“That was pretty much the most ‘Indiana Jones’ I’ve ever felt,” she said.
Her mother, Kristin Szremski, is proud of all her daughter has accomplished.
“Some of the things that kid has done is amazing, but I’m glad I didn’t know about some of them at the time,” she said.
Now, Kasia Szremski faces another challenge: funding.
She expects to finish her doctoral dissertation by May 2014, but needs to conduct a soil analysis of the area to see where and when different crops were grown to add further insight about how resources were shared.
With a July 30 deadline looming, she needs less than $7,000 to for the extensive research. To raise the money, she is crowdsourcing the funds at scientific research fundraising site Microryza.
“The past has a lot to teach us,” she said. “I know that a lot of people perhaps disagree, but the majority of the problems we are facing today are not new problems. I think it’s important to look to the past. What we can learn can be helpful for understanding the problems we’re facing.”