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January 26, 2019

Public Engagement

January 26, 2019 | By | No Comments

In my most recent blog post, I discussed the importance of public engagement by researchers in academia, focusing on the role of biological anthropologists and their unique ability to contribute to the conversation on social race and ancestry. I mentioned how this concern led me to broaden the target audience of my CHI fellowship project from biological anthropologists and related professionals to middle and high school students and introductory college courses. However, because I am not trained or conditioned to reach outside of my disciplinary bubble, one of my goals this semester is to learn how to successfully engage with and educate the public through my project (brief project description available in my last blog post). I started asking myself questions to decide how to best promote my project and ensure that people will actually use the website.

Some questions I am concerned with are:

  1. What variables are used to measure success of public engagement?
  2. When is a public engagement project considered successful?
  3. What mediums are commonly used to reach the largest number of people?
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December 14, 2018

What is your purpose?

December 14, 2018 | By | One Comment

That title sounds really deep. What I am proposing to ask yourself is: In my professional career, why am I doing what I do and does my position serve a purpose to the public?

My initial project goal was to develop a map of craniofacial morphology that would be embedded in our project website ( The primary audience was biological anthropologists who are interested in macromorphoscopic trait research. When presenting my project pitch, Dr. Watrall suggested that I reconsider my audience as it would only reach a small group of people. He suggested that I use the map as more of an educational tool.

As I readjusted my aims for the project to reach a wider audience, I began to realize how little we engage with the general public in biological anthropology. I think this a disservice to both our discipline and the public. In regards to my specific research area, biological anthropologists spend a lot of time grappling with large theoretical concepts centered on human variation and race theory; yet, we spend little time disseminating results of this research outside our own academic journals. The interdisciplinary foundation of anthropological studies makes us well-equipped and knowledgeable on these theoretical concerns. We borrow from other sciences, such as ecologists,biologists, geneticists, social scientists, and environmentalists, to understand patterns of human variation and the many interacting variables that influence the human physical form.

My project now aims to educate young adults (middle and high school students and college undergraduates) on human variation and race theory in attempts to contribute to the current conversation surrounding race concerns in the United States. The website will teach students that biological race does not exist; however, systematic phenotypic human variation, due to environmental forces and population histories shaping genetic population structures, fueled social race into existence. As a result, social race has also influenced our patterns of population phenotypic differences due to selective mating and sociopolitical forces. The website homepage will provide the theoretical background for these issues as they are perceived by biological anthropologists, while the remaining pages will focus on the causative forces behind variation (i.e. local environment and genetics). The final page will present the map of macromorphoscopic trait variation to view the spatial distribution of craniofacial variation. Students and teachers will be provided with links to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association where they can view climate across time and space and to the Human Genome Project where they can download and explore genetic data. I will also provide quizzes for students focusing on the website content and will prompt students with explanations for each answer.

In the future, I hope to increase public engagement with my research and carry this mentality throughout my career. If you are researching for your own interests or a small subset of people in your discipline, what is the impact of your research? I encourage all academics to consider who you are reaching with your research and who else could be benefiting from the knowledge you have gained.



November 28, 2018

It’s All About the Deliverables

November 28, 2018 | By | No Comments

We, as academics, are conditioned to write grant and project proposals for research that we are interested in pursuing. We have our general format that we follow for these proposals…introduction, background information, research problem and questions, materials and methods, and potential impacts of the research project. However, a large focus of research proposals today, particularly grant proposals, are highly concerned with the “Deliverables” portion. Deliverables refer to the tangible products that will come from the project and the ways in which you will disseminate your results, including public presentations, development of software, public release of raw data in some forms, and analytical programs. This is an important component of your project proposal as it forces you consider who will be your target audience, how you will engage with the audience, and what you hope your project will provide to that community. Is the primary goal of your research to educate? Provide a useful tool? Provide a new method? Create a platform to connect researchers with a common interest?

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October 17, 2018

Privacy in Digitally-Driven Projects in Forensic Anthropology

October 17, 2018 | By | No Comments

Today, the majority of research and daily practices in Forensic Anthropology have a digital component. When writing grant proposals for forensic research, institutions, such as National Institute of Justice or the National Science Foundation, generally fund projects that have deliverables in the form of large data mining and sharing via digital sources. In daily practice, forensic anthropologists aim to identify individuals primarily through the use of software with large amounts of reference data to which they compare their target individual.
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September 26, 2018

Identifying Amber Plemons

September 26, 2018 | By | No Comments

Hello, unidentified individuals. I use that term frequently. Unidentified individuals.

My name is Amber Plemons. I am identified. I have the ability to speak and advocate for myself. But what happens when unidentified human skeletal remains are discovered? Their voice has to be restored through someone else, whether the goal is to provide justice for a cruel act bestowed upon them or closure for loved ones.

I am a third year PhD student in Biological Anthropology, focusing in Forensic Anthropology. As a forensic anthropologist, much of my days are spent attempting to narrow down candidate lists for identifying unknown persons, researching new methods to improve identification efforts, or improving and building upon these established methods.

I began this career path years ago (more than I care or am willing to admit) at Texas State University, where I received a B.S. in Anthropology, followed by my M.A. in Applied Anthropology at Mississippi State University. At Mississippi State, “the other MSU”, I managed databases for prehistoric and historic skeletal assemblages. Here, I realized the power of digital curation of information for past populations, both biological and cultural material, and became interested in digital projects involving bioarchaeological and forensic skeletal collections.

At “the real MSU”, Michigan State University, I work with Dr. Joseph Hefner to build a reference databank of cranial macromorphoscopic trait data, traits used to estimate ancestry in skeletal remains. The goal of this project is to record the patterns of trait variation across the world in hopes of increasing accuracy and reliability of ancestry estimations. By folding these efforts into a digital project, we increase the ability to exchange data with researchers around the world. This is what encouraged me to become a CHI Fellow, where I hope to map trait expressions to create a visual representation of human craniofacial variation. We can then easily relate trait variation patterns to geographic barriers, climate and humidity, population histories, and genetic data to understand what shapes craniofacial morphology. This project will help to improve and refine ancestry estimations and aid in increasing the likelihood of identifying ‘unidentified individuals’.