The Renaissance Kid
Wunderkind Will Anderson (B.A., B.S. ’17) has been outdoing the world for years. At just 21, he’s a globetrotting archaeologist, published author, athlete, humanitarian, baritone … who loves taking care of bones.
On the top floor of Sparks Hall, around the back on the Library Plaza side, a long, dark hallway stretches to the northwest. There’s no one up here. The doors are all shut, and there’s not a light in sight. For a weekday afternoon at the state’s largest public university, the quiet is borderline unnerving.
Halfway down, behind a closed door, Will Anderson slides the cast of a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal tooth out from under a microscope and gently places it back in its case. When he’s done, he grabs a keyring and pulls the door closed behind him with a hollow clap that echoes down the corridor with the jingle of his keys.
He glides down and approaches a set of heavy doors marked “Do Not Enter: Authorized Persons Only,” complete with a stop sign and a warning about 24-hour surveillance. He punches in a code and wends around a corner, arriving at a dead-end room guarded with another keypad.
Here, some 2,500 specimens and casts of remains are kept behind locked display cases or tucked away amid stacks on stacks of deep drawers in industrial-grade cabinets that line the back wall.
Anderson unlocks a case in the corner and cradles a tiny cranium, disproportionate and split into more than a dozen bones. It belonged to a newborn baby. He explains that humans are born with more than 450 bones, many of which fuse and combine in time to constitute the 206 in an average adult. These bones never had the opportunity.
“This is very important to have — very rare,” he says.
He moves over the cabinets and grabs a pelvis and rotates it around to the back where the sacrum should connect. But on this specimen, the sacrum has completely fused to the pelvis. It’s one solid mass of bone now. He points to the extensive fat deposits. These indicate obesity. Then he finds the acetabulum, or hip socket. It’s been smashed at, eroded away — the result of an injury compounded with excessive weight. Over time, walking had become impossible, and this person had to give up the fight — immobile for the rest of his life, always seated or lying down. And if a joint surface doesn’t move, the bones will eventually fuse.
“Ever since I was 16, I wanted to work in forensic anthropology, in bones,” Will explains. “Dig up the bones, figure out what happened, and find out who they were.” Now a senior with a double major in anthropology and chemistry, he turned down acceptance letters from Penn and Duke when Georgia State offered him a Presidential Scholarship, the university’s most coveted award: a full ride complete with tuition, fees, housing, a living stipend, and paid research and study abroad opportunities.
Larry Berman, dean of the Honors College, helped recruit Will for the Presidential Scholarship when he was in high school.
“He was in the top cohort,” Berman says. “Once I met him, I found him to be — as I still do — an extraordinarily interesting and eclectic person. A renaissance man. There is no box that Will Anderson fits.”
“Will hit the ground running when he came here,” recalls Frank L’Engle Williams, professor of anthropology and Will’s faculty adviser and mentor. Under Williams’ direction, Will inventoried the entire collection with excruciating detail and continues to keep the bones clean, organized and secure.
You may have guessed it already, but Will is something of a prodigy.
Homeschooled through the eighth grade, he credits his parents with making knowledge and the arts such high priorities. An excellent piano player, his father works at the Supreme Court of Georgia as a state attorney where he drafts decisions for the state’s top justices. His mother, a dazzling soprano and English teacher, directed Will and his siblings as their primary instructor. (His twin sisters have dual degrees in French and violin performance while his brother, an alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is one of the nation’s top pipe organists under 30.)
While the only child in his family without a primary career in music, he’s still minoring in music and, in fact, contemplated a music major before deciding on the sciences. His mother remembers how, from his earliest days, he loved watching his sisters play their violins. He was begging to learn the instrument himself as soon as he could talk and started training at just two years old. He later transitioned to the viola and began performing publicly in the sixth grade, making Georgia’s All-State Orchestra seven years in a row and earning a seat with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra for four.
And yet his true artistic passion is voice. In fact, you might have heard him before. He not only nailed roles in the School of Music’s opera productions of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” and Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” but he also sang the national anthem at the university’s winter 2015 and spring 2016 Commencement ceremonies in the Georgia Dome. He even sings baritone professionally with the Atlanta Opera and the choir at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
“He didn’t give up music,” Berman says, “but through his experience with his faculty members and classes, he developed a whole new set of inquiries, and that is the essence of an honors education.”
But that’s not even the half of it. He’s also a paid organic chemistry teaching assistant, giving lectures and running labs in one of the university’s most difficult subjects.
“It’s fun to watch them cry,” he admits, “but it’s always awkward when I have friends in class.”
He parlayed a freshman assistantship with the Anthropology Department into a relationship with Williams, which led to his opportunity to work with the collection. But he soon needed another challenge, and Williams got to see just how much he could do.
First, he inventoried Williams’ vast, private collection of dental casts — hundreds and hundreds of specimens. Then came the research. When Williams returned from a Fulbright trip to Belgium with molds of an immense collection of Neanderthal teeth, he had big plans. He wanted to compare them with their contemporary counterparts, trace their evolution, and mine them for insights into diet, region, age and more. Minor detail: This had never been done before, and there wasn’t even a method in place.
So Will created one. After teaching himself elliptical Fourier analysis (major-league trigonometry used to represent and analyze shapes) and some advanced software, he invented a photo technique that uses a low-magnification microscope to digitally trace the outline of each tooth and capture every deformation down to the micron. He then processed the images and calculations through the software to create a description of each specimen never before available.
“This is big time,” Williams says. “This is the kind of work a doctoral student would do. And he learned it all on his own.”
Later, some colleagues approached Williams about analyzing scratches on some ancient South African bone tools. Williams wondered if Will could adapt his method for analyzing teeth to figure out what these digging tools were used for: what surfaces they encountered, what foods they pulled up from the ground.
He did that, too. And that research earned him a first-place prize at last year’s Sigma Xi Student Research Conference, one of the sciences’ most prestigious venues for student researchers.
“He is an inventor,” says Williams. “He takes a problem apart and figures out its most basic elements and builds up from there.”
“It’s too early to talk about Will’s accomplishments. He’s just getting started. I think we’re going to be talking about his accomplishments 20 or 30 years from now. His will be a lifetime of distinction and achievement. I really believe that.”
— Larry Berman, Dean of the Honors College
Drawing from these projects and more, Will is already an established author in his field, earning three presentations (including one as a first author) at the 2016 and 2017 meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), the most important conference of the discipline. His scholarly abstracts are a matter of AAPA record. And he has more research he hasn’t submitted yet.
“Incredible. Through the roof. Off the charts,” says Williams. “It’s unheard of.”
Will loves busy summers, too. Just last year, he got back from Romania, where he helped a licensed archaeology firm excavate a mass grave left by Vlad the Impaler in the 15th century. In 2014, he flew to Chengdu, China, to analyze water pollution, dipping buckets off of Jinjiang River bridges and taking samples back to a nearby university lab, where he hunted for contaminants using a gas chromatograph micro spectrometer he built himself. (“I only fell in once,” he says.)
A year before that, he set out for Belize with a team from a local nonprofit to help excavate Dos Hombres, the country’s fourth largest Maya site, left undisturbed for nearly two millennia. He built bridges and hiked through virgin jungles full of jaguars, peccaries and uncatalogued insects to unearth architecture and an abundance of artifacts. He even jousted with packs of spider monkeys who frequently ganged up to pelt the team with sticks, nuts and excrement when they crossed invisible territorial boundaries.
“We were in the middle of a 300,000- acre preserve — all jungle, no humans,” he recalls. “I can’t even express how small you feel. It’s like nothing else. It’s so raw, so humbling.”
He impressed the group so much they invited him to come back in 2015, this time as a supervisor.
“He’s been an incredible champion of the academic experience in all of its facets, not just with research and teaching but in the service,” says Williams. “He’s a model student, and he’s definitely one of my heroes. I don’t think you can get much better.”
Will competed with USA Swimming for seven years. Played soccer for 14. He’s an avid cyclist and bike commuter. He’s been volunteering with StandUp for Kids as a counselor for homeless youth for three years, providing food, medical care, friendship and other needs to some of Atlanta’s most disadvantaged young people. He’s a presidential ambassador with Georgia State’s 1913 Society. And he took 21 hours in the fall in preparation for graduation this spring, admitting during his interview he had slept a little on only two nights of the preceding week.
In 2006, Will offered to care for his grandfather, Paul Daniel Bryan, a former lieutenant with the U.S. Navy and a veteran of World War II and Korea who fought in battles like Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Paul was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and needed a daily caretaker — a duty Will embraced for eight years until Bryan died in 2014.
Bryan told Will many stories from his days in the service, and their cherished relationship encouraged Will to pursue a specific career. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is an organization within the Department of Defense charged with recovering missing U.S. soldiers from past wars and conflicts. Its work relies heavily on forensic anthropologists who travel the world to investigate, excavate and identify the remains of servicemembers who never made it home. It’s a calling that perfectly unites Will’s penchant for the sciences with his drive to honor his grandfather’s service. With trademark determination, he spent the following years balancing his musical talent with the legwork necessary for a career at the DPAA: scholarships, grad school, practicums, research and really long hours manhandling human remains.
But in the light of some recent epiphanies, Will has reevaluated the options and challenges ahead of him. On one hand, the DPAA now depends more and more on contractors and is no longer a reliable place to settle in for a long career. On the other, he has realized he could use a break from the sciences he’s mastered so marvelously — because, while forensic anthropology may still have much to teach the 22-year-old, it’s not challenging him like it used to.
“If I feel like I’m not being challenged, I’m going to move on to something else,” he says. “Or if I feel like I’ve done as much as I can do with something, I’m going to go and something new. I’m an adrenaline junkie. That’s what keeps me alive.”
And so, next August, Will is heading to Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island to begin training as a U.S. Navy nuclear surface warfare officer. He’ll learn how to man the biggest guns on the most capable submarines in the world.
It’s an enormous jump — from labs and trowels to subs and nukes — but for Will, it’s “something I have to do and a stepping stone to whatever I do next.”
Once his time in the armed forces is served, he can make an- other momentous decision: what to conquer next. He can use his G.I. Bill benefits to go back to grad school, scoop up a doctorate, teach, research or maybe even pick up some contracts with the DPAA. Or he might go in an entirely new direction. His horizons will be broader than they are even now.
“It’s too early to talk about Will’s accomplishments,” Berman says. “He’s just getting started. But even now, he can do almost anything he wants because of his intellect, energy, friendliness and incredible level of engagement. So I think we’re going to be talking about his accomplishments 20 or 30 years from now. His will be a lifetime of distinction and achievement. I really believe that.”
With just a few classes left, Will is set to graduate in May as one of the most interesting and gifted young scholars in the university’s 104-year history. And we can’t wait to write his next story when he’s an alum — you know, once he actually gets to work on this little thing called life.