James, Helen F. (Active)
United States National Museum of Natural History
Avian Systematics/Evolution
Helen was born on May 22, 1956, in a U.S.Army hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas. As a young girl, she lived on a farm at the foot of Kessler Mountain in the Arkansas Ozarks, near the town of Fayetteville. When she was eight years old, her family moved up the mountain to a custom-built house in the woods. She and her sisters had free range of the surrounding eastern deciduous forest, old fields, streams, and aging farm buildings, and made the most of it. As ecologists, Helen’s parents had a special interest in birds, and they fostered a passion for nature in their girls. Family trips involved camping, canoeing, and hiking in the Ozarks, with extralimital excursions to the American southwest and Mexico. The Amerindian artifacts that Helen found on some of these trips captured her youthful imagination, leading her to join the Northwest Arkansas Archaeological Association at age twelve. Two years later, to her great joy, her father accepted a one year Fulbright Fellowship assignment to Cape Coast, Ghana, and Helen experienced human cultures and natural communities very different from those of the Ozarks. Life back in Arkansas seemed a bit dull in comparison, so at age sixteen Helen left high school to become a freshman at the University of Arkansas. There she was ably mentored by Mike Hoffman and others in the Anthropology Department, who remembered her from Archaeological Association excursions. In 1977, she graduated with training in archaeology and biological anthropology, but with her real interests drifting inexorably toward vertebrate zoology and paleontology. Helen had ties with the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, having begun as a summer volunteer in the Paleobiology Department two years previously. She also had conducted senior honors research on Amerindian skeletons in the Physical Anthropology section, and worked as an assistant to Richard Zusi on his research on the anatomy and systematics of hummingbirds. She returned to the latter job after graduation, but Richard’s grant soon ran out, and she fatefully accepted a position helping Storrs Olson identify some fossil birds from the Hawaiian Islands. This project blossomed into a long-term research program when collections that Storrs and Helen made in the islands revealed a bounty of undescribed fossil birds. Documenting these extinct species and placing them in an evolutionary and ecological context became a life goal for the couple, who were married in 1981. The switch to research on fossil birds enabled Helen to happily abandon her early anthropomorphism, while still applying her archaeological training at paleontological excavations, and her experience with human skeletal variation when delineating species limits in fossil birds. Archaeological training also had taught her to like multidisciplinary approaches, leading her to foster research collaborations that brought new sources of data to the program. These include an early entry into carbon dating of bone collagen using accelerator mass spectrometry, amplification of ancient DNA from subfossil bones to study the evolutionary relationships and population genetic history of extinct and endangered species, and joint excavations with paleobotanists and archaeologists to develop an integrated picture of ecological change through time. Helen earned a PhD degree in zoology from Oxford University in 2000, with a dissertation on the comparative osteology and phylogeny of the Hawaiian finches (Drepanidini). Her research interests beyond the Hawaiian Islands include fossil vertebrates and paleoecology of Madagascar, comparative osteology and phylogenetics of perching birds, and the evolution of island waterfowl. Helen has authored or co-authored over forty publications in science. She currently serves on the executive council of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution and on the council of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. When not in the museum, she is kept busy by her two children, Travis and Sydney. The family loves to escape to their summer cottage on the Cacapon River in West Virginia, a setting very like her girlhood home. Helen was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 2001.