March 15, 2016

My Personal Bioarch Wayback Machine

Sometimes, I have occasion to sift through my old files -- digital, mind you; I haven't had paper files in years -- to see what I thought one, five, even twenty years ago.  Since I'm starting the roughly year-long process of preparing my tenure packet, I dipped into some of my early files when my interest in bioarchaeology was coalescing.

Here's the penultimate paragraph from the statement of purpose that I submitted to East Carolina University in 1999, in my application for admission to their MA program:

I have several specific goals for my graduate education. First, I would like to take classes in human anatomy and evolution, both of which I feel provide a basis for the study of bioarchaeology. Second, I hope that I will be able to participate in archaeological digs involving human remains so that I can learn correct excavation, recording, and documentation procedures involved in the treatment of these delicate archaeological artifacts. Third, I hope to accomplish several research goals. My immediate research goals are in the realms of biodistance and palaeopathology. I would like to look at the effects of the conquests of the Roman Empire on other native European populations, specifically in regard to the new diseases that Roman soldiers brought and the non-metric traits they passed down by procreating with the people they subjugated. Another research goal involves computer imaging. I would like to examine the benefits of three-dimensional graphics of specimens as a supplement to a textbook, as a conservation technique, or as a way to share information with bioarchaeologists and anatomists around the world. Finally, my long-range goal for my graduate education is to become a professor. I often think about the curriculum I would use if I were teaching osteology and about how to integrate new and developing technology to the study of bioarchaeology. For instance, I collaborated with my fiancé to produce a computer program that would quiz me on attributes of bones in order to prepare me for weekly bone quizzes for my osteology class at UVa. Taken to the next level, this program could include scanned photographs or even 3-D imaging of anything from a tooth to a tibia suffering from periosteal inflammation, with the goal that a student can learn to identify fragments and conditions of bone that might not be available in the teaching collection. Most of all, however, I would enjoy doing research as a professor and contributing to the growing body of literature in bioarchaeology.
How'd I do 15 years on?  First -- take a bunch of interesting classes: Check.  Second -- participate in digs overseas (even though it turns out I'm not great at field archaeology): Check.  Third -- do research on the Romans involving biodistance and palaeopathology: Check. Fourth -- become a professor: Check.

What delights me most about this statement, though, is that I proposed 3D imaging of pathological human remains as a teaching tool, and as a way to make human skeletons available to people without access to them.  This was pretty far-reaching in 1999.  I mean, there were 3D scanners and printers -- and they cost a ton of money -- but they weren't in widespread use in social science or digital humanities because, well, digital humanities didn't really exist yet. To put into starker perspective, in 1999, I still had dial-up internet. There was no such thing as Craigslist (my husband and I bought a car through an ad in Usenet!). It would be another couple years until I got a cell phone.  When we were shopping for houses that year, my husband and I borrowed a digital camera, because it was expensive and neither of us had one. And it could only store like two dozen pictures.

We now have sites like Digitised Diseases, which was officially launched in 2013, and I'm just now working with students to create more digital teaching resources with our 3D scanners and printers. This recent uptick in the democratization of information access, though, comes directly out of the open access movement, which I was actually aware of -- in its open source programming form -- two decades ago.

Oof, and now I feel old.


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