Jun 5, 2020
Rita Austin looks at human
remains from all over the world to try and understand past human
experiences and disease processes, particularly for tuberculosis
In this podcast, she shares with listeners
Dr. Rita Austin is a Predoctoral
Research Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Natural
History, where she works to evaluate their human biological
anthropology collections to better inform destructive sampling
decisions made by the museum.
She recently obtained her PhD from the University of Oklahoma. She talks about her work in this podcast, explaining the way researchers use methods like DNA ancestry, skeletal studies, and teeth calculus to reconstruct the impact of pathogens in the near and distant past.
Her studies have focused
specifically on tuberculosis and syphilis and she explains that TB
is ancient—we have been evolving with it for millennia. Syphilis on
the other hand is much more recent and was first documented in the
1400s; however, there are subspecies that are more ancient and
She adds that these diseases still exist today and explains how TB invades the body in more detail. Her work helps scientists better understand these pathogens in the past and how they have changed over time: a better understanding can help us target them now and be prepared for how they may continue to evolve.
She also explains one of her
overarching interests, namely how cultural practices inform and
affect health care. She adds some examples and reminders listeners
that one’s socioeconomic status affected one’s health. People were
touched by the plague, for example, due to different socioeconomic
situations. She comments that being able to protect one’s self from
sickness is a privilege.
Finally, she shares some interesting examples of how researchers have reconstructed end-of-life circumstances by looking at human remains, including a story about what some nun’s teeth told about the ink they used.
To find out more about her work, see the University of Oklahoma’s Laboratories of Molecular Anthropology and Microbiome Research page at https://lmamr.org/.