Interning at Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Week 1

My first week at DPAA has been excellent. I’ve met some amazing people and learned some new techniques for analyzing bone. For those who do not know, DPAA is where the human remains recovered from US wars are sent for identification. The remains are studied by historians and forensic anthropologists, and DNA samples are analyzed in order to identify the remains and send them home.

My first day started with getting a pass for Offutt Air Force Base where DPAA is located. My pass consists of a very official looking card with my photo on it. I have to admit that despite it only existing to get me past the security at the gate, I was unreasonably excited to have it. I played it cool, though; I didn’t want to appear unprofessional or ridiculous. So, pretending that getting an official government card was an everyday occurrence, I drove the short distance from the gate to DPAA.

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There is a lobby as you walk into DPAA where some of the artifacts recovered with the remains are on display. Boots, eyeglasses, pieces of uniforms and helmets. There is also a room where families come to receive the remains of their relative. It’s a sobering reminder of what all of this exists for.

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Most of the work I am doing at DPAA will be on the remains from the USS Oklahoma, which was bombed in Pearl Harbor. The boat sank upside down in shallow water, and although they were able to cut into the hull and get 30 or so guys out alive, roughly 400 sailors were unrecovered. Over the next decade or so, the remains were recovered, but with little provenience, and a high degree of decomposition, they were unable to sort the remains into individuals, so they were bundled and grouped and buried. Now that we have better technology, the Oklahoma remains have been exhumed and sent to DPAA Offutt to be identified. 400 burials is a lot of burials, and all of them are being sampled for DNA, CT scanned, and visually pair matched. I think I’ll have plenty to do this summer! That said, there are other individuals that are being analyzed here as well, I think most come from Europe, so likely WWII as well.

While I don’t get to do the DNA sampling, I got to spend a day this week assisting in sampling. This meant that I alternated between spraying bleach on everything (except the bones of course) and taking pictures. The big deal is, you don’t want any bone dust getting on any of the samples, so gloves get bleached between touching bone and anything else, and all surface areas get bleached between having bones on them. If bone dust from one sample gets on another, then it could result in inaccurate DNA results from the DNA lab. We were not actually extracting DNA, just taking samples so that someone else could do the extraction and analysis.

Two days this week were spent CT scanning. I did over 100 CT scans over the course of Thursday and Friday. Not bad, huh? (I actually have no idea if that’s fast or not) It was fun, and I noticed a bony deposit on one of them that wasn’t very visible to the naked eye, but super obvious in the CT scan. That was pretty cool to see.

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Part of this week I spent bagging up remains and sealing them with evidence tape. Turns out, evidence tape was created by the devil. It breaks really easily, but sticks to everything, so getting it to stay on what you’re taping without it sticking too badly to your gloves is nearly impossible. I’m sure there’s a technique that I have not developed yet, but until then, we remain mortal enemies. I hope I figure it out soon, because I’m wasting a lot of tape right now. Sorry tax dollars.

The last task I participated in this week was pair matching and aging the remains. I hadn’t done pair matching before, so that was good to learn. It consists of looking at a bone from one side of the body and seeing how well it corresponds to the same bone on the other side. On some, they are obviously different, which is easier. It’s much harder to be certain that they are the same than to be certain they are different.

A note on my living situation. In searching on AirBnB, I discovered a cheap place called Nirvana Point Wellness Retreat that had some weird requirements, such as no GMO foods, alcohol, red meat or any non-organic farm meat. It was cheap, though, and in a safe part of town, and in the woods a little bit. I decided to go for it, and on my first night here Sophia had me try out her chi machine (not chi like chi square, but chi like eastern medicine), it basically wobbled my feet back and forth while I lay on my back for ten minutes. It felt kind of good, I figure feet always need a good shake, they’ve been supporting all of your weight all day, after all. She also had me try asking a question of her Native American Spirit cards (they’re kind of like tarot cards, only with N. American animals). She got a coyote in answer to her question and I got a bowhead whale in answer to mine. Not sure which Native American group is the source of these cards. It’s a really lovely place, there’s a pool and at night I can’t see the lights from any other houses out my window. There’s a park and bike trail just down the hill from her house as well, the bike trail goes along the Missouri River for miles apparently. Makes me wish I brought my bike!

Anyway, things are going well, I’m off to a BBQ/Game of Thrones finale party. More to follow soon!

Petra Banks

Bioarchaeology MA Student

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An Internship in Microbiology for Use in Bioarchaeology

This fall, at Mississippi State University, I will start the second year of my Master’s program in Applied Anthropology with a focus in bioarchaeology, and the first year of my Doctoral program in Biological Sciences. My research will involve the analysis and reconstruction of the oral microbiome from ancient dental calculus, from several different samples. These samples will be analyzed in order to examine the health of individuals in the past, as well as to determine the changes in microbial composition that occurred over time. This summer, I interned with Dr. Heather Jordan in her microbiology laboratory in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mississippi State University. One of the focuses of Dr. Jordan’s research is microbial ecology, and her work involves genomics, transcriptomics, and next-generation sequencing to examine how microbial communities function, affect fitness, and impact host health. Additionally, Dr. Jordan works with Mycobacterium ulcerans, as well as examining postmortem changes in microbial community structure.

During this internship I was trained in different methodologies, and worked on focusing and refining the research goals for my thesis. The methods that I learned, and subsequently practiced, will be employed during the data collection and analysis stage of my thesis work. The first techniques that I worked on were the extraction and isolation of DNA from soil and microbial samples, as well as using DNA cleanup kits to further concentrate the DNA and remove chemical compounds. These processes are performed to destroy the bacterial cells, remove all organic and chemical contaminants, and concentrate the DNA so that it can be used in downstream applications such as quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), 16S metagenomic sequencing, or whole genome sequencing. In addition to soil samples, I also worked with several dental calculus samples from early 20th century burials. The DNA was extracted from these samples, and a portion was sent for metagenomic sequencing, while another portion was used to determine if specific pathogenic bacteria such as Treponema denticola, Porphyromonas gingivalis, and Streptococcus pneumonia were present. This was performed using PCR, in conjunction with specific bacterial primers, and running the results on a gel electrophoresis machine. Based on the results from the gel, we were able to determine if the bacteria we were looking for were present.

Gel Electrophoresis-1 Gel Electrophoresis

My time spent in Dr. Jordan’s lab has been incredibly beneficial to not only my immediate research goals, but my eventual career as a scientist and researcher. These research methods and techniques will be crucial to my thesis, and will allow me to cross departmental lines to conduct research into an area of which we know very little. I am very grateful to receive this training, and look forward to implementing it in future research endeavors.

Jonathan R. Belanich

Bioarchaeology Graduate Student

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Arenal: “A” is for Applied Anthropology

Our journey continued on to Arenal National Park, a park famous for its perfectly conical volcano that reminds me of the pointy mountains that I used to draw as a child. It’s located northwest of San Jose, and is one of Costa Rica’s most frequently visited tourism destinations. Activities around the area include natural hot springs, zip-lining, horseback tours, and hiking.
We started our mornings by visiting the small towns that we did our interviews in last summer. While La Fortuna is the tourism hub of the area, census data gathered from the University of Costa Rica’s Development Observatory showed that the “hotspots” of recent population growth were in these smaller, more distant towns, where the majority of residents worked in agriculture or commuted towards the park for work in tourism. These are the places that tourists never see. One of our more interesting sites in Arenal was a small town called Abanico. This quiet “pueblito” of about 200 residents changed dramatically in 2009, when the Costa Rican government made plans with Habitat for Humanity to relocate refugees from the Cinchona earthquake. People who were displaced from the Caldera highway construction were also included in the housing development. In total, 58 houses were built, and the population of the town tripled almost overnight. However, Habitat and government planners did not take into account crucial factors like access to work and transportation services. Limited and seasonal agricultural jobs in the area, combined with an inadequate bus system to take people elsewhere, left residents with little agency to make successful lives for themselves in Abanico. The government has been largely unresponsive to their concerns. As a result, at least half of the houses are deserted, and the people who remain are understandably frustrated and despondent at times over the situation.

Image View of Arenal Volcano from La Fortuna

So, what role could anthropology play here? In David’s international development class last semester, we spent a long time critiquing development projects and understanding why they fail. Abanico is an unfortunate example of what can happen when planners rely too much on a one-size-fits-all development model and then don’t stick around long enough to see the project through. While Habitat accomplished the obvious goal of building houses, they failed miserably at fostering a healthy, viable community. People always ask me what I could possibly do with a degree in anthropology, and this is exactly where we fit in! First of all, we know how to talk with people and build trust and relationships within a community. Our methodology is all about observation and attention to what is happening on the ground, while also considering the important social, political, and historical factors that influence how people live their lives. Anthropologists also know that:
1. Every project is different and requires its own unique considerations. Development plans must take a holistic look at a situation and figure out the most contextually appropriate method to achieve its goals.
2. The desires, needs, and concerns of the community must be prioritized, and their participation must be integral to every stage of the development process.
3. Successful projects require an investment of time, not just money.
The remaining residents of Abanico face challenging circumstances, but we met some wonderful families there while doing fieldwork last summer. It was great to be able to return and see them again on this trip.

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Image 2014 (Side note: the little boy is missing from this year’s picture due to a frijole (bean) in the ear incident. Whoops!)

The rest of our time in Arenal seemed to fly by. David did a bang-up job presenting to La Fortuna’s asociacion de desarrollo and to Arenal’s park officials. We even managed to fit another waterfall hike in there.

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We hope that everyone is having a great, productive summer, and we’re looking forward to hearing about your adventures too!

Saludos,
Sallie Dehler
Graduate Student

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