Mayan bone mystery probed in EHS series

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Mayan bone mystery probed in EHS series

Students eagerly await the mystery's unraveling

Students eagerly await the mystery's unraveling

Victoria Greenia

Students eagerly await the mystery's unraveling

Victoria Greenia

Victoria Greenia

Students eagerly await the mystery's unraveling

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The second in the series of extra-curricular science lectures at JSC, “What Does DNA From Ancient Maya Skeletons Reveal?” packed Bentley 206 on Wednesday, Sept. 11.

Hosted by Dr. Nancy Elwess, a Vermont resident and a State University of New York professor of molecular biology, the session covered some of the latest findings on the mysterious South American culture. Elwess is a leading researcher on Maya genetics, life-style, and migration patterns and is intensively involved with an on-loan collection of 588 skeletons from Tipu, Belize.

The presentation not only covered anthropological tidbits of information but also touched on problems and challenges a scientist may face in his or her field.

For instance, Elwess related a story about a time she was speaking to a group of colleagues and peers about evidence of a pervasive illness in the skeletons of young Maya children retrieved from the dig site. She said she described to them the texture of some of the bones that seemed to indicate beta thalassemia, a blood disorder that is most often found in the people of the Middle East. The disapproval from the crowd, she said, was palpable, and she left the forum discouraged.

As an interesting aside, she said a year later a doctor contacted her to say he had seen the disease in some of the living children at the community he had been volunteering at just a few miles from Tipu. Unfortunately he hadn’t taken any DNA samples she could work with.

On a projector, Elwess showed pictures of the ancient bones and a diagram of the locations where they were found around the temple. She pressed the crowd, particularly the science students, to think of questions they would want answered as researcher: Why are some skeletons more outside the perimeter and lying differently than the others? Why were some skeletons stacked on one another? Were some of the people related? How much time was in-between the deaths?

People had a lot of their own questions as well. One student was brave enough to ask Elwess if she believed in the study results of a colleague whose case study was based on a relatively small amount of research.

“There’s always a possibility in science that there’s an error,” she said after a thoughtful pause.

Sarah Ahlstrand from Warren, Vt., is a biology pre-med senior who attended the seminar. She said she liked what the program Current Topics in Science Speaker Series had to offer Johnson under-graduates, particularly freshmen or sophomores who have yet to finalize their major.

“These lectures show students fascinating paths you can travel in science,” Ahlstrand said. “You may start out in one field, but then be introduced to a completely different branch for you to explore.”

Ahlstrand’s comments about the program are exactly what JSC Professor of Environmental Science Les Kanat hopes students think about it: the lectures offer a wide-range of topics that could fuel scientific interests. In an email interview describing the series, he wrote about some of the benefits, including the potential gains for his pupils that go beyond enhanced academics:

“An added benefit for the students is that they get to write a report about the presentations and thus are provided with additional feedback on their continually developing writing skills. [Also,] the student participants recognize that they are ambassadors for JSC and thus are very respectful while asking numerous probing questions of the speaker. Students are encouraged to join the speaker for dinner in the Stearns Dining Hall after the presentation.”

Those who join the speaker for the dinner, he wrote, have the chance to get to know more personal history of the scientist. This is also the perfect time to make personal contacts with individuals who represent agencies where future employment may be found.

According to Kanat, these series have been going for more than 20 years at the college, supported by the JSC Department of Environmental and Health Sciences. Lectures take place every Wednesday night in Bentley Hall’s room 206, last a little over an hour, and are free to the public.

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