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Conferences and Classes

Thursday: May 3, 2012

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Anthropologists meet at several events annually, depending on area of study and travel expenses, of course. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) was held in Portland this year. I did not attend, but my advisor and cohort did. Instead, I ran two sections of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans alone, and then helped guide the undergraduate Dental class with the bio graduates. I don’t like talking in front of groups, so I was happy that all classes were lab exercises (not lecturing), but it is something I need to get over soon (I will get to that…)

The Society for American Anthropology (SAA) was held the following week in Memphis. My advisor was the only one of us who had a chance to go. My Peru field school assistant and now friend Keith presented on the sample I helped collect data from. If you click on the image, it will take you to his site and you can see a larger version.

Another Possible Complication for the use of Harris Lines as an Indicator of Growth Disruption by Keith Chan

I am bummed I did not make it to either since I missed out on meeting some mentors in the field, but there is always next time, right? Next year, I hear that the AAPA will be in Tennessee and the SAA in Hawaii. I am not sure if I can make it to either one, but it is satisfying to know that I picked a field of study that involves traveling :)

And I may not have gotten to go to the meetings, but I was approached by the department Chair and asked if I was interested in teaching Cultural Anthropology. At the time, I was not sure what he meant (I had thought he meant that night). Long story short, I am being given the opportunity to teach a class this fall. Cultural anthropology has not been my area of focus, but it is a 100 level class, and I have been given notes and presentations from others who have taught it. Jeremy has even offered to let me sit in his class over the summer for a refresher, which I haven’t decided on yet. I haven’t decided yet about actually accepting the opportunity either (although my inner voice is screaming “Yes you have! You are doing it!”). If I am going to teach, I do not want it to be a blunder – I want to be able to focus on it. If I am going to have another semester of grad studies, I do not want it to blunder, either – I have to be wary of my stress level and time management. Aside from those two large issues, there is nothing but positives: I get paid, which roughly will cancel out my school costs; I get the experience of teaching; I get something for my CV; I help the department out when they are in a pinch; etc etc.

I really shouldn’t kid myself – I am going to do it. How could I not? I enjoyed SI-ing during my undergrad life. And Boy put it to me like this: I get to spread the good word of anthropology to newbs. It freaks me out, to have to present 50 minutes two or three times a week, instead of 15 minutes three times a year at a conference, but I just need to get over that. While I had never defined myself as a person who wanted to teach, I think I have to agree with others that it may suit me. I might as well find that out now, so I can begin pursuing that career when I graduate, rather than guessing that is what I ought to be doing when I find myself without a job. Right?

Oh, but the most ridiculous awesome part is that I have academic freedom to design the class myself, down to picking out the very book the students will be using. To say I am shocked is an understatement. To say I am ready for that responsibility is slightly bending the truth. But I have good people to refer to and help me out, so it will work out in the end.

Seriously, though…Me? A teacher?  C R E E P Y .

Oh, and one of my teachers puts together a newsletter for the department. They are huge files so it may take some time to load, but you can catch up with Volume 1 Issue 1 (details the Sapelo Island field school), Volume 1 Issue 2 (Lew Wallace excavations and a little bit about the DENTALWEAR Project), and Volume 2 Issue 1 (where there is a blurb about my research associate job with DENTALWEAR – this one isn’t posted yet at UIndy so I uploaded it for you).

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Class Notes: Bioarchaeology

Wednesday: November 2, 2011

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Week 9: Diet II & Chemistry (Stable Isotopes and Trace Elements)


Teeth are the only hard tissues in the body that directly interact with the environment. As such, they are of great use for bioarchaeological research. Dental macrowear is scored commonly on Scott’s ordinal scale. Teeth wear over time, and in ancient populations the wear was so great that almost nothing of the tooth would be left, and indeed sometimes the body would purge the tooth altogether. Macrowear studies this pattern, which can have different sequencing depending on diet and subsistence.

Dental topography was developed within the last decade, applying geological mountain mapping software to dental crowns.  This turns what is visually seen in Scott’s scale to quantitative data. [At school, it is part of my job as the research associate to use the 3D plotter machine to profile each tooth from Dr. S’s project to create a virtual catalogue.]

Dental microwear studies a tooth’s microscopic texture, including pitting and scratching. A scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a common method in doing so. Teeth are coated with a very fine layer of metal, then an electron gun shoots the specimen inside a vacuum chamber. The electrons will bounce off the object and the software is able to transform a 3D object into a 2D representation using a horizontal scan. Newer technology does exist to create a 3D model, but this is not yet typical.

A 3D method that is gaining speed, however, is that of the while light confocal microscopy profiler (WLCP). [The major part of my duties in the department.] It is similar to a compound microscope, except a beam of light is shot through the lens and bounces back. This distance is measured to created a vertical scan of the specimen. It uses scale sensitive fractal geometry to calculate variables like complexity of the occlusal surface, anisotropy and heterogeneity of features, and texture fill volume.

As usual, we discussed several case studies to wrap class up.


Class was almost entirely discussion from the texts. I admit that I still need to read these chapters, so this bit may not be the clearest. Stable isotopes and trace elements can provide evidence for the type of diet an individual ate. We discussed measuring carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen with a mass spectrometer. This breaks a sample down to its elemental parts, weighing each element separately. For instance, when measured, the delta of  13C can indicate a marine versus a terrestrial diet. Marine foods will show a delta closer to zero, while terrestrial foods will be closer to -7. Another benefit is that plants discriminate differentially to 13C in their photosynthesis, so C3 plants can be differentiated from C4 plants in the archaeological record. The benefit here is that maize is a C4 plant so the adoption of maize can be noted in archaeological remains. Nitrogen likewise proves a valuable factor of understanding diet, giving a trophic accumulation of 15N. Legumes will provide a base level of 15N, herbivores who eat these legumes will have a slightly higher value, and carnivores who eat the herbivores who eat the legumes will likewise have an even higher value. 15N therefore needs to be understood within the environmental context, because comparisons between environments like coastal versus inland, or arid versus humid will give the incorrect impressions. Oxygen analysis of both bone and teeth (18O), as well as strontium, can show migration patterns because it is linked to the available water source.

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School Bits

Friday: October 14, 2011

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Although I have several segments of class notes to type up, I thought I would make a short post about other things happening in grad school.

Over the weekend, my cohort and I presented our findings at BARFAA (see the abstract located here). UIndy was given the responsibility of profiling (at least) three individuals accidentally discovered in Tippecanoe County. Originally, I was to present my own research on teeth from Isreal using the WLCP, but instead we all felt it would benefit the project if I changed course and added dental texture analysis to the accidental discovery. We put together a keynote presentation and though quite nervous, I felt we did well. I was surprised to find that I was able to master my voice and talk slowly during my segment. We had some questions afterward, and I was able to meet several people in the field. Boy came with me so we could make it a mini-vacation, and the next day we attended the workshop for Transition Analysis, by Dr. Wilson of IUPUI. It is a software developed for use by anthropologists. My take is that it is similar to Fordisc, only targeting age rather than ancestry. It allows you to input several measurements and use a range of measurements. Then it will calculate the confidence level and show you a graph which outlines the individual methods and the correlated age from them. I look forward to using the program in my studies.

Since I made a plug for it, I shall make a plug for another anthropologically awesome program. Anthropomotron is designed for estimates of sex, stature, body mass, skeletal population estimates, and various skeletal indices. I am also interested to see how this works out for me.

Aside from BARFAA, I have been working on my Human Osteology skeletal project. I requested a juvenile since I had worked with mostly adults in Peru, and received a tiny baby. It is sad to think he or she passed away so early and the heartache that must have caused the family. Perhaps that thought is ethnocentric, I do not know, but I feel honored to take the little one in my care. From my research this far, I am almost certain the baby did not reach full term. The teeny tininess has proven a learning experience for me – not just because the bones are not at their mature form, but also because they are literally so small, it is simply hard to examine them. I have also learned first hand about the difficulties archaeologists face when excavating children (this site is a CRM recovery, of course). The archaeologists did very well bagging different bones and labeling the bags, but they did not always correctly identify something. A turtle shell was mistaken for a cranial fragment, and some fragments of ribs were misplaced in the fibula and vert bags. The pubes were both placed in the vert bag as well. This avenue is something I would like to explore more – archaeologists do not always get proper osteological training, and even then sometimes children are not discussed in depth. This is for several reasons of course (and will be explained in a later post), but the need is there. Considering the importance of reburial, the most respectful thing would be to collect the whole individual, you know? Tooth buds, epiphyses, and all.

Another cool thing that happened (and then didn’t) is that the DNR called to see if we could excavate a skeleton discovered in someone’s backyard. To have the excavation experience ourselves would have been wonderful but unfortunately it coincided with BARFAA so we could not get there as early as the police requested and they were able to hire someone else. Maybe next time.

Undergrads (friends and strangers alike!) may surprise you with free food since their tuition includes a meal plan that they do not always use. I’ve had this happen twice and it is quite awesome. The anthro undergrads are pretty cool, especially. For instance, today we discussed the anthropology behind zombies. Does it get any more real than that?

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Class Notes: Human Osteology

Sunday: September 25, 2011

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Week 3: Osteometric Landmarks & Teeth


In class, we covered the view of the interior cranium, the maxilla, and the mandible. We also covered some common craniometric landmarks used to identify ancestry. Since I have these memorized well: gnathion, incision, prosthion, nasospinale, nasion, glabella, bregma, vertex, obelion, lambda, opisthocranion, inion, opisthion, basion, gonion, ectomolare, ectoconchion, dacryon, zygion, porion, euryon, and pterion.

There are 20 deciduous teeth and 32 adult teeth in most instances. I only had 31 teeth because one of my third molars never developed. Cool, huh? Teeth are made of enamel (which is almost entirely protein and is acellular, which means they will never heal), dentin (which is about 75% mineral but is cellular although not well enough to patch cavities), and cement (about 65% mineral, like bone, and is what Sharpey’s Fibers hang on to inside the gomphosis joint).

The human dental formula is 2:1:2:3. This means that for each quadrant of your mouth, you have two incisors, then a canine, then two premolars, followed by three molars. We were briefly taught how to determine each category, and upper versus lower dentition (except for canines). More specific detail of this will be taught in Dental Anthropology next semester.

  • Upper incisors: Crown will be flat, enamel flares out from root, the root is more round, and wear will be linear.
  • Lower incisors: Crown will be flat, enamel continues evenly from root, the root is oblong, and wear will be linear.
  • Canines: Crown will be pointed, and wear will have a central bulge.


  • Upper premolars: Crown will be a rounded rectangle, and evenly cut in half.
  • Lower premolars: Crown will mostly circular and will have two dimples.
  • Upper molars: Crown will be shaped like parallelograms, and generally only have four cusps and three roots.
  • Lower molars: Crown will be more squared, have a Y5 or +4 pattern, and only have two roots.

As a grad student, I also have to be able to determine first, second, and third molars. Third molars are fun because typically the cusps are all messed up and the roots are tiny. First are generally the perfect examples of a molar, and seconds are intermediate between the two.


We were given details on our dental topography project. The machine we will be using is part of my Research Associate position. Not only will I scan the teeth for texture with the white light confocal microscope, but I will also profile them in the topography machine (TopoM). This process takes literally about 2 hours to do a single tooth but it builds a three dimensional view of the tooth.

For lab, we went over more skull fragments and began sorting teeth.

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Research Associate

Saturday: September 10, 2011

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I have not truly begun my duties as an RA yet but I have been shown the ropes and began practicing. The process can be simplified as thus:

Researchers from around the globe take molds of molars in their samples and send them to us. I have been given a site from Isreal to work with first, since I am expected to present at the Biological and Forensic Anthropology Association (BARFAA) in October. The first step is to clean the molds with alcohol because sometimes the dirt from a tooth is left in them.

Then, I mix up resin and hardener to cast the teeth. The cast works better to reflect the light from the white light confocal profiler (WLCP) than real teeth, and it standardizes all the teeth samples for comparisons. Not to mention, it also prevents us from having the full responsibility of samples in house and opens up a lot more sites to be studied (some of which may be reburied right away can still have the teeth examined through the casts).

I carefully adjust the tooth on a tray so that Phase II is level. Phase II can be thought of as the part on top of your molar that can be felt with your tongue and hikes up to your cheek (of course, it is much more specific than that). Phase II is useful for dental microwear because it is where food hits the tooth during chewing. Microwear, by the way, refers to the scratches and pits that you (yes you!) have on your teeth that can only be seen via a microscope. Different diets will show different patterns of wear. In older populations, some of the teeth are completely worn down and are flat across the top, even exposing the dentin inside. Although this does not bode well for my particular kind of study, it is a fascinating thing to witness. Teeth were used as major tools back then, but also food processing did little to soften food as we have now. In fact, sometimes stoney grit was added to food as a consequence for grinding it with stone tools. In fact further, some populations today still wear their teeth down!

Next, I use the microscope to find a representational place on Phase II and then use the software that came with the WLCP to profile the texture of the tooth. The light shines down and bounces back to the lens and this is calculated so that it can be represented through computer output, rendered in several ways. First, it shows as a gradient of elevation. I then show it as a true image which can give the appearance of an Scanning Electron Microscope image (SEM). This is important because our technology is new and therefore we need to make sure that our results are comparable to SEM results for a control factor, but also because SEM images are what everyone is already familiar with.

Here, I will inspect the image for evidence of dirt. At this point, it will be microscopic dirt, and likely part of the cast so instead of removing it in real life which is likely impossible, I can edit the images so the program understands that it should not be included in the calculations.

Amidst all the linear scratches or circular pitting, you may wonder how I can identify dirt, but the trick is that dirt generally looks like tiny little balls, unlike anything else on the tooth surface so really it is not that difficult to determine. I use the program to erase little spots and then tell it to finish with the calculations.

There is more after this step, but at this point, I am just focusing on finding Phase II (it is not that easy for a newb like me since I am still learning simply how to identify which tooth is which) I also poke around learning the program (and earned the title Rebecca the Grey which quickly transformed into Rebecca the White and even sometimes all the way elevated to Gandolf since I happen to have magic computer powers). I should start on the real thing in the coming week and my next post about it hopefully will include some sort of visual reference for you.

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checking out campus

Sunday: August 28, 2011

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Thursday night, Boy and I stayed in Indy with his mom so that I could move some of my stuff to her guest room. On Friday, we wandered around campus to get my parking permit, find the different offices that may come in handy, locate the cafeteria and bookstore, find my class rooms, and so on. Dr. S had also invited me to attend a MS thesis defense by Lindsy Frazer, titled “Dental Microwear Texture Analysis of Early/Middle Woodland and Mississippian Populations from Indiana.”

This was the first defense I had attended, and it was much more relaxed than I had expected. I followed her presentation pretty well, though she said afterward part of her committee had a question or two they felt were unanswered. Her thesis hits on a difference between the SEM technology and the new 3D technology that she utilized at UIndy (I will explain in another post). Defending a thesis sounds really horrible, but watching her public presentation lightened my anxiety somewhat. Of course, I was not there during the private committee part and I am sure that will be much more difficult.

During her private defense, Boy and I met my cohort – there are three of us on the bioarchaeology track. We also hung out with a third year student, Laura, who showed us the white light confocal microscope (which I will reference from now on as the WLCP, and when I learn more about it I will explain that that means to you, but this is the new 3D technology I mentioned). I only got to hang out with one of my cohorts because the other had to leave campus right away, but I feel I will have a good time there.

Afterward, I met with Dr. S to discuss a funding opportunity that equated to roughly half the tuition cost for the entire time I am at UIndy. It is a research associate position, which can basically be thought of as a research assistantship (RA). I will be in charge of making sure all the incoming molds of teeth from around the world are getting examined with the WLCP, and that any student needing to use it will get an appropriate time on it. This is great for me, because I wanted to be a part of this new technology, but I am not sure I wanted to base my thesis with it, since I very much like macroscopic research (things you can see with your own eyes without technology). Having this position will also give me something to do on my off time down there on campus, and of course the funding aspect is wicked cool. He is going to train me on it this week, so I should be able to post more details.

Boy was impressed that the whole campus uses Lenovo instead of the “crappier Dells and other garbage” you see at other universities. He also enjoyed Dr. S’s sense of humor. A lot.

I am looking forward to class starting tomorrow. I am enrolled in geoarchaeology, human osteology, and bioarchaeology. I’ve had two weeks off of work now and my brain is fully recharged and itching to go. I do feel a bit of anomie going into this new situation without really being able to understand the changes my life will take until it happens. In addition, a lot of stuff started to go wrong right when I was leaving my job (my car stopped shifting, my glasses broke, and some other snafus popped up). I suppose a pessimistic person would have told themselves that it was Fate trying to tell them something. I looked at it differently. In the face of all these unexpected expenses, I asked myself, “How sure are you that this is the best decision to make?”

Absolutely sure.

Undaunted and uprooted, I will be a Master of the Universe! Science! :)

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