This week at Real Scientists, we have biological anthropologist Katie Faillace (@toothkate). Katie is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University, where she studies… teeth. Yep, apparently we can learn a lot about human evolution and migration just by looking at teeth! We are keen to know more, and hopefully this week will be jaw-dropping, nail-biting, teeth-sha… oh well, you get the picture. As usual, we asked our scientist some questions:
How did you become interested in scientific research?
I was exposed to medicine/anatomy at an early age through my father. His laptop at home would slideshow through his photo files when it went to sleep, and most of the pictures on his computer were orthopaedic surgery photos, which I thought were just the COOLEST THINGS. Fairly consistently throughout school and through college applications I wanted to be a doctor, but the more I volunteered in hospitals and clinics, the more I realised how much of medicine is patient care (admirable, of course, but realistically not a good fit for me). So I started looking at other science subject alternatives, but still related to biology and anatomy.
What are you working on right now?
My PhD project uses dental traits to examine population change and/or continuity from the Iron Age to the Early Medieval Period, focusing on the region of Wessex in England. The shapes of teeth are phenetic traits – physical manifestations of genetic code – and variations in shape occur in different frequencies in different populations. This means I can compare the Iron Age populations to the later Roman and Early Medieval populations to see if the biological structure has changed through time. There is still ambiguity over the amount of migration that occurred while parts of Britain were under the Roman Empire’s rule, and whether local populations were overwhelmed by an influx of Roman citizens or were largely controlled by a small group of elites. Given the scope of the Roman Empire at this time, which part were incoming migrants from? When Rome withdrew from Britain, did the population return to its Iron Age origins, or was it irrevocably changed? And did the Germanic people immigrating in the Early Medieval period affect the biology of the population in Britain in the same way? Or, was there so much movement of peoples even prior to the Iron Age that all the populations have the same sort of teeth anyway?
Why is studying teeth important?
In many ways, my research relates to wider discussions of diversity and representation in the past. There have been a few popular news stories lately about African Romans in Roman London and York. In examining Wessex, which is further west of London and much further south of York, I hope to contribute to our understanding of diversity during these periods in a broader, non-urban context.
I think the public should care about archaeological research in general (including my research) because it’s important to understand how cultures and biology existed and changed in the past to be able to understand interactions in the present and future on a deeper level. Western society has a fascination with personal identity, genealogy, and ethnicity, and I think that people are innately interested in archaeology because they can see themselves and their heritage in the finds. This is where things get messy, of course, because identity as studied in archaeology and identity that the lay public know are not the same, but they do inform each other. It also leads to even messier questions about “ownership” of the past. But these are important discussions that are kickstarted by anthropologists and archaeologists that have very real implications for people living today.
I’d like to add something about evolution here: bioarchaeology/anthropology is a great way to introduce evolutionary concepts to the public. Because it deals with anatomically modern humans, it can be more relatable to people today, but our understanding of biological change in the past has an explicitly evolutionary paradigm. Whether the public thinks this is an important reason to care about bioarchaeological research I don’t know, but it is a reason that I hope they do!
And, a disclaimer: I am still learning how to communicate and promote my research to a wider, non-academic audience, so I hope this makes sense.
What do you do besides research?
I’m transitioning into the role of Social Media Coordinator for my lab group CUBA (Cardiff University BioArchaeology), and for the Biological Anthropology Women’s Mentoring Network (@BA_WMN) alongside Devin Ward (@devinleaward). Through my lab, I am a research collaborator to various archaeological units, currently working on human bone assessments and stable isotope analysis for a few different units (I’ll be sharing some of the isotope work throughout the week!). And this week I’m starting to plan the Iron Age Research Student Symposium 2019 with my colleagues, not sure what my official role with it will be just yet.
Please welcome Katie to Real Scientists!