From anthropology professor to leading pollen expert, and back

Photo of Vaughn Bryant

Vaughn Bryant is many things: an expert on the history of kissing, a highly sought-after pollen and honey analyst, the leading forensic pollen expert in the US, a scholar on the diets of early man. But what he is to Texas A&M University, and the Department of Anthropology in particular, is a pioneer.

Bryant, a University of Texas graduate with a PhD in botany, came to A&M in 1971 for the sole purpose of starting an anthropology department. Until that point, anthropology was part of the sociology department.

“The dean of Liberal Arts told me that if I could show there was a need for anthropology, he would give me faculty and degree plans,” Dr. Bryant said. “So, I had to get students interested in it. And how do you get people interested? You market it.”

This entailed giving free lectures all over campus, inviting distinguished anthropologists to give talks to students, and showing free anthropology-themed movies at night.

“You have to get students interested, get them in the classroom first, before they can learn,” Bryant said.

The result was the Department of Anthropology, which now includes the Institute for Nautical Archeology, the Center for the Study of the First Americans, the Conservation Research Laboratory and other facilities including the Palynology Laboratory, of which he is the director, and where much of the pollen research in the United States takes place.

“If you were to Google ‘pollen analyst' and the words 'forensics or honey or archaeology,’ you will only find one person,” Dr. Bryant said. “And that’s me.”

And that means Bryant is in demand. He is working on a pollen analysis project with the United States Army, which has just entered its second phase. His lab work involves pollen analysis, used in everything from criminal investigations and homeland security to knowledge about ancient human diet and shipwreck sites.

“The Army would love to have a portable way of analyzing pollen, something they could take into the field, to find the origin of anything from a person, vehicle, or backpack,” Bryant said. “Since 2001, we are much more aware of problems with terrorism. The Army is looking for a way to use this in a military application.”

Bryant has also become an expert in honey analysis, which has become imperative to avoiding either paying a high tariff fees or breaking the law.

“To protect the domestic beekeeper, the U.S. put a high tariff on honey from China,” Bryant said. “So all of a sudden, Southeast Asia began selling honey to the United States—but it was honey from China which was transshipped and that is illegal.”

A third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is imported, a lot of which has been smuggled from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. Honey importers are happy to pay Bryant for his analysis to rule out such illegal activity. He even analyzed honey from the White House’s beehive.

In addition to his pollen and honey research, Bryant found the time to become an expert on the history of kissing, which keeps him very busy around Valentine’s Day.

“When I first started teaching anthropology, one of my students asked if kissing is universal, if every culture does it,” Bryant said. “I thought that was a good question, so I decided to figure it out. I went to the library and couldn’t find any research on it. I eventually found out it is NOT universal, and it probably started in India around 1500 B.C. or even earlier."

Bryant’s various expertise has earned him guest spots on The Today Show, CNN, Fox, To Tell the Truth, and the BBC among others, and his research has been cited everywhere from National Geographic and the Scientific American to People Magazine and Bee Culture: The Magazine of the American Beekeeper. He also writes articles for children’s magazines, and teaches online courses at Texas A&M.

Because for him, it all comes back to teaching.

“I am a teacher and teachers want to help other people learn,” Bryant said. “I feel obligated to pass on the knowledge I have acquired to others before it is lost.”