Anthropologist Brings Lucy the Famous Fossil to University
Non-Invasive Scan Offers new Insights into Ancient Human Ancestor
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with the Ethiopian government, have completed the first high-resolution CT scan of the world’s most famous fossil, Lucy, an ancient human ancestor who lived 3.2 million years ago.
Lucy is in the United States as part of a world premiere exhibit organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
John Kappelman, anthropology professor, led the scientific team that scanned Lucy, whose remains include about 40 percent of her skeleton, making her the oldest and most complete skeleton of any adult, erect-walking human fossil.
“By examining the internal architecture of Lucy’s bones, we can study how her skeleton supported her movement and posture, and compare that to modern humans and apes,” Kappelman says. “Because Lucy is so complete, she is one of the few fossils that permit us to compare how she used her arms versus how she used her legs. These new data will allow us to examine the theory that she climbed about in the trees, as well as walked on two legs when she was on the ground.”
Although Lucy is small (about one meter tall), her contribution to science has been large. She represents a distinct species of human ancestor, known as Australopithecus afarensis, or “southern ape of Afar,” in reference to where the bones were found.
Prior to the 1974 discovery of Lucy, some theories of evolution suggested human-like intelligence evolved before upright posture (bipedalism). But the existence of ancient bipeds like Lucy refutes this theory because their brain is not significantly larger than that of a modern chimpanzee.
The Ethiopian government entrusted Lucy to Kappelman and Richard Ketcham, associate professor of geological sciences and director of the university’s High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility.
Scientists at the facility have scanned thousands of delicate fossils and biological specimens, including irreplaceable items such as the brain case of Archaeopteryx (one of the oldest and most primitive birds known). Because CT allows scientists to see inside fossils without doing any harm, it has become one of the most powerful tools for studying precious, one-of-a-kind specimens.
“We have more experience scanning natural history objects and dealing with the issues that can arise in scanning natural material than any other lab in the world,” Ketcham says. “The equipment is constantly updated and we’ve created a large, specialized toolkit to process the scan data and to extract the maximum amount of information from it. There’s no other place the Ethiopian government could have sent Lucy to get better imagery or to acquire it more safely.”
For 10 days the university team worked around the clock to scan all 80 pieces of Lucy’s skeleton. The scientists created custom-built foam mounts to safely hold the specimens in the scanner. And each piece was carefully examined before and after scanning to ensure that no damage occurred during the project.
The successful completion of Lucy’s scan means that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format, another of the reasons behind the scanning.
“These scans will ensure that future generations are familiar with Lucy,” says Jara Mariam, director general of Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, “and will know of Ethiopia’s central contribution to the study of human evolution. A virtual Lucy will be able to visit every classroom on the planet.”
“In some ways, scanning Lucy was the easy part,” Ketcham says. For the next several months, the research team, consisting of scientists from all around the country, will be reviewing and processing the data and generating images to analyze Lucy’s skeleton and begin to answer important questions ranging from whether she climbed among the tree branches to how she chewed.
This ancient hominin, whom Ethiopians call “Dinkenesh” (“You are beautiful”), is the feature attraction in the exhibit, “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia,” which is touring the United States. More than a quarter million people viewed the fossil at the Houston Museum of Natural Science during 2007 and 2008. After the brief layover in Austin for the scan, Lucy moved to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.
Kappelman says the university’s scanning project represents a model for future collaborations between public educational programs and scientific research.
“There is an understandable tension between museum curators, who like to display fossils, and scientists who want to conduct research on the specimens,” Kappelman says. “Our project demonstrates these goals are not mutually exclusive—but mutually beneficial. The museum exhibit that features Lucy offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to introduce millions of people to the actual evidence for human evolution, and seeing the real fossil is so much more meaningful than viewing a plastic replica.”
“Having Lucy here also means that scientists can conduct research that asks new questions about the fossil and this knowledge feeds back into the ongoing exhibit and continues to educate,” Kappelman says. “Lucy may be old, but she still has lots of new secrets to tell.”
Chinese-Americans and the Politics of Race
From the activism of Communist Chinese immigrants to the construction of new Chinese regional identities in New York, “Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture” (2008) co-edited by Madeline Hsu, associate professor of history, addresses a broad range of historical and contemporary issues in Chinese-American life.
The History News Network named Hsu one of the nation’s “Top Young Historians” in 2007. Learn more about her research and teaching at the Center for Asian-American Studies at www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/aas/.
Exploring the Legacy of “Atlas Shrugged”
“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand is the second most influential book for Americans today, after the Bible, according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club. This March, the Department of Philosophy hosted a symposium to explore the book’s legacy.
The event was sponsored by the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism held by Tara Smith, professor of philosophy and author of “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist” (2006).
Female Orators in early America
Women engaged in public speaking in the early American Republic more often than historians have previously recognized, says Carolyn Eastman, assistant professor of history. Findings from her research appeared in a 2007 issue of Gender & History. Eastman’s book “A Nation of Speechifiers,” forthcoming from University of Chicago Press, will explore this phenomenon as one aspect of how men and women learned to understand themselves as Americans after the Revolutionary War.
An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies
From cattle drives to oil wells and lusty schoolmarms to desperados, Hollywood has captured Texas mythology in all its many forms. Texas looms larges in moviemaker’s imaginations writes English Professor Don Graham in the handbook “State Fare: An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies” (2008), but they don’t always get it right. Graham provides a brief overview of some of the best (and worst) Texas films in the pocket-sized guide.
Political Analyst investigates Race and Party images
Tasha Philpot, associate professor of government and African and African-American Studies, analyzes how political parties rebrand their public images to broaden their electoral coalitions in her latest book “Race, Republicans, and the Return of the Party of Lincoln” (The University of Michigan Press, 2007). Drawing from experiments, focus groups, national surveys and newspaper articles, Philpot reveals how voters respond to these campaign appeals.
Preserving Texas-German Dialect
Hans Boas, associate professor of Germanic Studies, travels to communities throughout Texas to record interviews with speakers of the dying Texas-German dialect. The language features unique words such as “der Cowboy” (Cowboy spoken with a German accent) and “die Stinkkatze” (skunk, or simply stinky cat). Media outlets around the world, including the Associated Press and Germany’s leading news magazine, Der Spiegel, have covered the project. Learn more at www.tgdp.org.
Deep in the Heart of Texas Barbecue country
Elizabeth Engelhardt, professor of American studies, and her graduate students take readers on a guided tour through Central Texas barbecue lore in their forthcoming book “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket,” (UT Press, 2009). Featuring interviews with feedlot owners, wood suppliers, sausage factory owners and barbecue connoisseurs, Engelhardt and her team of researchers provide an in-depth account of the history, tradition and culture of Texas’ most popular culinary custom.
College Graduates Less Likely to Abandon Religion
College graduates are more likely to maintain their religious beliefs and practices than those who never attend college, according to Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology, who published the findings in “Losing My Religion” in the journal Social Forces.
The researchers found four-year college students and college graduates are the least likely to curb church attendance, to say religion is less important in their lives, or to completely disassociate from religion. Young adults who do not pursue a college degree are the most likely to abandon their faith.
“Many people assume college is public enemy number one for religion,” Regnerus, author of “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers,” says. “But we found young adults who don’t experience college are more likely to turn away from religion.”
Crime on the Rise?
When the FBI and Department of Justice release their annual reports on crime in the United States, Mark Warr’s phone starts ringing. His voicemail fills with interview requests from reporters seeking the criminologist’s expertise for stories on rising crime. But the angle of many news stories based on FBI data—that violent crime is a growing national problem—is frustrating, Warr says, because it’s inaccurate.
The sociologist has studied social reaction to crime for three decades and published dozens of studies on crime, public opinion and victimization. Learn why public perception of crime remains out of sync with reality in the feature story “Crime on the Rise” at www.utexas.edu/features/2008/11/10/crime/.
Making the Grade
A little angst, rebellion and feelings of being left out may seem the expected lot for an adolescent. But for some adolescents, particularly those who feel left out or stigmatized at school, what may look like drama may actually have long-term ramifications.
Robert Crosnoe, associate professor of sociology and affiliate of the Population Research Center, has found that the experience of feeling left out can have long-term educational consequences. Learn more about his research in the feature story “Making the Grade” at www.utexas.edu/ features/2006/adolescents/index.html.
Free Minds: Humanities Institute opens university to new communities
For three years, the Free Minds Project has offered a college-level course in the humanities to adults living on low to moderate incomes.
The only program of its kind in the state of Texas, Free Minds taps the talents of top professors from The University of Texas at Austin and Austin Community College for a two-semester course for 25 students, all of whom face financial and educational barriers, and pay no tuition.
The Humanities Institute provides course books and bus fare, and dinner is served each night before class begins at a public library in East Austin. A concurrent youth development program is provided for student’s children through Camp Fire USA.
“Because of its focus on the humanities, Free Minds isn’t a typical college transition program,” Vivé Griffith, project director, says. “The program gives students the chance to reflect on life and see the world from a new perspective. Students are motivated to go back to school, but they also gain the confidence to pursue promotions at their jobs and to become more involved in their children’s education.”
The participants study philosophy, literature, U.S. history, creative writing and rhetorical writing. Those who complete the course earn six college credits in the humanities.
“Whether wrestling with Plato’s ‘Republic’ or teasing out meanings in Wallace Stevens’ poems, students explore new ways of thinking about themselves and their world,” says Evan Carton, director of the Humanities Institute and an English professor who has taught in the program. “They recognize their own intellectual capabilities and gain the confidence to start planning their pathway to higher education.”
The program also provides college and career counseling, with workshops covering topics such as financial aid.
To learn more about the Humanities Institute, including the Community Sabbatical Research Leave Program and the Living Newspaper Project, visit www.humanitiesinstitute.utexas.edu.
Social Outcomes of Giving Back
What drives people to volunteer, and why? Marc Musick, associate professor of sociology and associate dean for stu¬dent affairs, and John Wilson, professor of sociology at Duke University, examine this question in their book, “Volunteers: A Social Profile” (Indiana University Press, 2007). Covering a broad range of topics, including volunteer motivation, historical trends and social influences, the sociologists provide insight into the causes and consequences of volunteering.
Recovery Remains elusive for Hurricane Katrina survivors
In 2006, the National Science Foundation awarded Ron Angel, professor of sociology and Laura Lein, professor of anthropology, a $100,000 grant to investigate the ability of disaster victims to recover after an event like Hurricane Katrina. It’s been more than three years since the storm, but families remain fragile, the researchers found. Learn more about the study in the feature story “Unnatural Disaster” at www.utexas.edu/features/2008/katrina/.
Examining Learning Disabilities
The National Science Foundation awarded Chandra Muller, professor of sociology, a $365,000 grant to examine the educational experiences of kindergarten through 12th-grade students with learning disabilities.
The three-year research project will identify factors that lead to their success in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Findings will inform the development of education programs and practices to better integrate students with learning disabilities into the STEM pipeline.
Katharine Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services, has spent more than 20 years researching the job market and advising students on how to turn a liberal arts degree into a fulfilling career. Her book “You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career” (Viking Adult, 2009), provides a com¬prehensive career guide for liberal arts grads, including how to showcase their education, use visual mapping techniques to identify their strengths and possible career paths, and conduct small experiments that will lead to great outcomes.
Bellevue: Serving the Underserved
Throughout the history of the United States, New York City has been at the forefront of medicine. The gateway to America, which has welcomed generations of immigrants, has become a living laboratory for medical breakthroughs for epidemic diseases such as cholera, smallpox and tuberculosis.
“There is a strong link between immigration and disease,” says David Oshinsky, the Jack S. Blanton chair in history who is leading a five-year study of the medical history of New York. “For example, cholera was first seen by New Yorkers as the Irish disease, tuberculosis as the Jewish disease, and polio as the Italian disease.”
Many immigrants didn’t have money to pay for a doctor, so they turned to Bellevue, one of the nation’s oldest and largest public hospitals. “Bellevue is truly the people’s hospital,” Oshinsky says. “It is designated as a care facility for the President of the United States, but it also remains the last resort for people who are poor, underprivileged and overlooked.”
Oshinsky earned the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Polio: An American Story” and has been appointed distinguished scholar-in-residence at New York University.
Racial and cultural crossroads in New Orleans
Shirley Thompson, assistant professor of American Studies, examines the cultural history of New Orleans, focusing on Creoles of color, the French speaking population of African descent. In her forthcoming book “Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans” (Harvard University Press, 2009), she traces the experiences of Creoles of color as they responded to massive upheavals in their racial, cultural and national identities during the 19th century.
New Perspectives on American-Indian identity
Each November, the nation revisits stereotypes about American Indians via mythologized depictions of the first Thanksgiving in the New World. However, the historical facts don’t always match the picture painted in elementary school celebrations. Scholars whose research challenges these stereotypes include Steven Hoelscher, chair of the Department of American Studies, and Erika Bsumek, assistant professor of history.
Hoelscher’s book “Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H.H. Bennett’s Wisconsin Dells” (2008) traces the many-layered relationship between photographer H.H. Bennett and the Ho-Chunk Nation. While Bsumek’s “Indian-Made: Navajo Culture in the Marketplace, 1868-1940” (2008) explores the complex links among Indian identity, the emergence of tourism in the Southwest, and the meanings behind the brand “Indian-made.”
Amigoland: Bridging the Divide Between Brothers and Cultures
In his new book, Amigoland (Little, Brown and Company, 2009), Oscar Casares, assistant professor of English and Brownsville native, tells the story of two brothers, Don Fidencio and Don Celestino, who must travel into Mexico to solve the mystery at the heart of their long-standing dispute: the family legend of their grandfather’s kidnapping.
Faith in the Jury System
Mary Rose, assistant professor of sociology and law, examines the jury system and public opinion of the legal system. Recently, she explored people’s preferences for juries rather than judges to decide legal cases. Race and ethnicity proved one of the best predictors of support for juries. Imagining themselves in different legal situations, including as a criminal defendant or someone filing a lawsuit, non-Hispanic whites overwhelmingly selected a jury to decide the case rather than a judge.
For example, 87 percent of whites chose a jury compared to 73 percent of African Americans. Hispanics reported a similar reduction in preference, unless they chose to take the survey in Spanish. Among this group, support for the jury was markedly lower, rarely exceeding 50 percent.
“Faith in the jury as a more trustworthy decision-making body is weakest among communities in which people have experienced a history of discriminatory treatment in the legal system,” says Rose, who published the findings with Christopher Ellison, the Elsie and Stanley E. (Skinny) Adams, Sr. Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts, and Shari Diamond of Northwestern University, in Social Science Quarterly last year.
Support for the jury also likely depends upon familiarity and comfort with the principle of letting non-professionals make decisions. “Newcomers to the United States or people who are less steeped in the culture—at least as indicated by language use—may not share the American founders’ assumption that an independent jury is preferable to a judge,” Rose explains.