Tanya Smith is yet another heavy-hitting PLAYA alum. A Professor in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, she has also been a professor at Harvard University, fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. She was a PLAYA resident in 2016, a stay which generated many fond memories and furthered her work on The Tales Teeth Tell: Development, Evolution, Behavior (The MIT Press). As the book flap to this fascinating, readable work says, “Our teeth have intriguing stories to tell. These sophisticated time machines record growth, diet, and evolutionary history as clearly as tree rings map a redwood’s lifespan.”

Tales has been reviewed in the Washington Post and described in Tanya’s own blog posts and now shows up here, in PLAYA’s Edge Effects blog. A recommended read!

Tanya, what led you to Playa?

A good friend and colleague from Harvard told me about PLAYA, noting that she had heard the call for more scientists. Shortly after that I moved to the west coast for a sabbatical, and took up residency at PLAYA during a transition between academic positions. It was a memorable journey getting there, as I had to drive through the wildfires just breaking out all across northern California at the time, and even had to backtrack to get out of the path of the Napa Valley fire!

Did you come to work on a specific project? If so, did you make progress on it?

I worked on a book called The Tales Teeth Tell. My time at PLAYA fostered some of my most focused writing work, allowing me to complete the better part of two chapters in two weeks.

Tales Teeth Tell - Tonya Smith

How do you think the land and waterscapes here affected your work?

Although I was nervous about being able to conduct research without being more “plugged in,” the spaciousness and solitude were just what I needed. I was able to reflect more as I wrote, which strengthened the personal narrative I included in those first few chapters. I also love photography and walking in nature, and so I titrated productive writing sessions with some joyful restorative breaks.

Describe a typical day at PLAYA.

I had a lovely little cabin with a window that allowed me to watch the sunrise from bed over the pond – a truly glorious way to get an early start. Most days I’d begin with coffee on the porch with the chatty water birds, then silent meditation in the main building with a kindred spirit. I’d follow a simple routine of preparing meals, writing, and ad hoc naps and walks – knowing that I could plug into community when needed.

What were some highlights for you?

Honestly every day was pretty special. Standout moments include several delicious meals with the other residents and PLAYA staff – warm and fascinating people; a long morning hike up into the hills with my meditation buddy; a visit to the nearby wildlife sanctuary; and walking out onto the playa at sunset – indescribably magical. Even though I’m now working in Australia, I’m looking forward to returning to tackle a new writing project in the next few years ~ hoping for a more uneventful journey next time!


Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email PLAYA’s Executive Director to join this conversation.