Gabriela Sheets receives the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Dissertation Award for her 2017 dissertation on “The Developmental Ecology of the Infant Microbiome”.
The Committee describes Sheets’ work as “novel meshing of anthropology and biology to explore an emerging area of general interest,” and thought it was likely to “make important contributions well beyond the medical anthropology community.” One member called it an “exemplar in where science should go.”
“Recognition begs reflection, and reflection begs gratitude. The beast that this dissertation was to become invited me on a marvelous journey through the lives, stories and biologies of many Salvadoran families, for which I am forever grateful. Before my observing eye, life spilled out. She sometimes clumsily, but always excitedly, tripped over herself to whisper her secrets and to weave her tales through the human body. Even under and around the long shadows of death where meaning was mute, her whispers sounded. Thank you Emory for the opportunity to research questions that excite me, always supported by frameworks rooted in our anthropological and biological heritage. I hope to make even a small difference with the tools and drive that you provided for me.” Gabriela Sheets
Finding ancient human remains in Africa is rare and most of the work done in this field is recent. A lot has happened in the last few years however. Emory’s eScienceCommons detailed Dr. Thompson’s role in the research.
Dr. Jessica Thompson hopes to learn more about migration patterns from the DNA of bones discovered in Malawi. It shows that the hunter gatherers that lived there as recently as 2,000 years ago are not genetically related to today’s population. Scientists previously relied on tools left behind to create migrations patterns. DNA now gives answers to whether populations mixed or whether one was forced out. The oldest samples from Malawi are over 8,000 years old. Dr. Thompson had help from graduate student Kendra Sirak with dating and DNA extraction of the 8,100 year old skeleton.
The work that Dr. Thompson collaborated in was featured in the New York Times.
Ancient DNA analysis can reveal insight into past populations on many levels. Unfortunately, accessing the osseous labyrinth inside the petrous bone, which has the highest concentration of endogenous DNA of any skeletal element, creates a problem for analysis: It requires intact skeletal remains.
PhD candidate Kendra Sirak has developed a new technique to access the osseous labyrinth without the damage done by established techniques. She details the process in her paper published in BioTechniques and has taught the technique to experts in ten different countries, which has allowed them to perform the procedure independently.
Dr. Molly Zuckerman (PhD, 2010), Associate Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at Mississippi State University, has been making the news lately. After 7,000 bodies were found buried under the University of Mississippi Medical Center, she has been involved in exhuming and studying the skeletal remains and the asylum’s health records.
The cemetery was part of the Mississippi State Asylum, which was operational from 1855 to 1935, an era in which psychiatric asylums were common throughout the United States. Dr. Zuckerman has drawn conclusions about the health of the asylum patients from the archives of the asylum’s discharge records. These records are allowing Zuckerman and other historians and anthropologists in the Asylum Hill Research Consortium to form a database of individuals who were buried there. They have received many inquiries from family members about ancestors whom they think died at the asylum, and the Consortium’s hope is that people will be able to readily access the information.
Zuckerman also hopes to exhume more of the bodies in order to learn more about health and the diagnosis of madness in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. The bones could provide information about the diseases, malnutrition, or living conditions of the patients. Zuckerman’s research focuses on the bio-social determinants of health inequalities. Her dissertation at Emory was an evolutionary, social, and ecological history of syphilis in England. Since syphilis was a common cause of insanity, Zuckerman’s expertise positions her well to conduct research at this site.
Several master’s students at Mississippi State have already analyzed the exhumed bones to make conclusions about health. One student used genetic sequencing to reconstruct oral bacteria from skeletons. Another student studied tooth enamel to make conclusions about nutritional deprivation and severe stress. Yet another student found evidence of pellagra, a disease caused by Vitamin B deficiency, in both asylum records and skeletons.
The stories of the patients buried at the Mississippi State Asylum are sure to unfold in the next few years, and we look forward to Dr. Zuckerman’s contributions.
In a recent eLife article, Dr. Jessica Thompson discusses how the newly discovered Homo naledi creates more questions than it answers in terms of the evolution of humans. The new discovery certainly illustrates that the evolution of the modern human did not occur in the straight line that we once thought.
This article also made news in the Guardian.
Emory Magazine reported about several Emory Global Health Institute projects, including the work of then graduate student Bonnie Kaiser (PhD, Emory Anthropology; MPH) on mental health issues in Haiti.
Read the full Emory Magazine article.