Five years of research: a summary

Originally posted on the Student Engager blog on 3 July 2017.

A PhD often feels like an unrewarding process. There are setbacks, data failures, non-significant results, and a general lack of the small successes that (I hear) make general worklife pleasant: “I got that promotion!” “Everyone applauded my presentation!” “I moved to the desk near the window!” PhD life is one giant slog until the end, a nerve-wracking hours-long session where you’re grilled by the only people who know more about your field than you.

I survived.

Hopefully some of you have been following my research here, starting from astronauts and moving on to runners and foraging patterns. It all ties together, I promise. I recently gave a talk at the Engagers’ event “Materials & Objects” summarizing my research, which I can now tell you about in its full glory! I’m pleased to announce: I had significant findings.

The lowdown is that (as expected) there are differences in the shape of the tibia (shin bone) between nomads and farmers in Sudan. Why would this be? Well, if you’ve been following along, bones change shape in response to activity, particularly activities performed during adolescence. The major categories of tibial shape were those that indicated long-distance walking, doing activity in one place, and doing very little activity. Looking at the distribution, the majority of the nomadic males had the leg shape indicating long-distance walking, and some of the agricultural males had the long-distance shape and others had the staying-in-place shape. This makes sense considering the varying types of activity performed in an agricultural society, particularly one that also had herds to take care of: some individuals would be taking the herds up and down along the Nile to find grazing land while others stayed local, tending farms. While it’s unclear how often a nomadic group needs to move camp to be considered truly nomadic, in this case it seems like they were walking a lot – enough to compare their tibial shape to that of modern long-distance runners. These differences in food acquisition are culturally-adapted responses to differing environments: the nomads live in semi-arid grassland and can travel slowly over a large area to graze sheep and cattle, while the farmers are constrained to a narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile banks, limiting how many people can move around, and how often.

Perhaps the most important finding is the difference between males and females. In addition to looking at shape, I also conducted tests to show how strong each bone is regardless of shape, a result called polar second moment of inertia (and shortened to, unexpectedly, J). The males at each site had higher values for J – thus, stronger bones – than the females. However, the nomadic females had higher J values than some of the males at the agricultural sites! This is in spite of most females from both sites having the tibial shape indicating “not very much activity”. This shape may be the juvenile shape of the tibia, which females have retained into adulthood despite performing enough activity to give them higher strength values than male farmers. Similar results have actually been noted in studies examining different time periods – for instance, the Paleolithic to Neolithic – and found much more similarity between females than between males. Researchers often interpret this as evidence of changing male roles but female roles remaining the same, which strikes me as unlikely considering the time spans covered. I instead conclude that females build bone differently in adolescence, and perhaps there are subtleties in bone development that don’t reveal themselves as differences in shape. As females have lower rates of testosterone, which builds bone as well as muscle, they may have to work harder or longer than males to attain the same bone shape and strength. I’m using this to argue that the roles of women in archaeological societies – particularly nomadic ones – have been unexamined in light of biological evidence.

Of course, the best conclusion for a PhD is a call for more research, and mine is that we need to examine male and female adolescent athletes together to see when exactly shape change occurs. If we can pin down the amount of activity necessary for women to have bones as strong as those of their male peers, we can more accurately interpret the types of activities ancient people were performing without devaluing the work of women.

My examiners found all this enthralling, and I’m pleased to say I passed! The work of this woman is valued in the eyes of the academe.

Link Extra: Climate Change Special

It’s not every day that a news article gives me a panic attack. Last week, I found that special piece that sent me reeling on the tube. Perhaps you’ve read it: the New York Magazine article about the effects of unstopped (unstoppable?) climate change. The author, David Wallace-Wells, argues that when the planet heats up by 6 degrees, it will basically be a Mad Max situation with less food, more violence, total inability to go outside in the tropics, and even more severe weather:

In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.

Reading this article, I felt a similar state of heart-in-my-throat horror to two years ago, when the New Yorker article about a potential devastating Pacific tsunami was published. That feeling was appropriately summarized by internet wonder Mallory Ortberg of the Toast (RIP), interspersing quotes about the disastrous consequences with emotional pleas and very appropriate pearl-clutching. Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 19.54.51

I read the article many times, listening to Florence and the Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me” on repeat. I was in a state of shock, and Mallory helped me through it. I wasn’t alone in my fear. Plus, we could move everyone away from the Pacific coast, right? Not this time, pals. This time the whole world’s in trouble. There’s no Captain Planet to come in and fight the bad guys, because there aren’t really bad guys – it’s us and our decisions, and the capitalist need for economic growth.

… in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves.

I can’t handle it. As much as I want to know the horrors our future will bring, I struggled to finish the article. It’s all the apocalyptic scenarios in one. My friends made a facebook chat so we can find each other and skill-share. I’m responsible for foraging, but will the same plants even grow? I only know wild ones, and precious little about farming. In the grocery store, I wondered who had ever thought cultivating peaches was a good idea – so difficult to transport and a total waste considering the caloric value. My mind turned to medicine. What happens when the antibiotics run out and all we have left are antibiotic-resistant bacteria? What happens when our IUDs expire? What happens when… you can’t let someone suffering from anxiety read this stuff. I woke up early, in the middle of a dream that the rising water took my passport.

Then salvation came in the form of a follow-up piece: it’s not as bad as NYM makes it out to be! Apparently climate scientists have taken to twitter to explain that the situation described by Wallace-Wells is overly disastrous.

But what are the odds? That’s the crucial question. In light of current energy trends and the Paris climate agreement, it seems more likely at present that human society will slowly bend its emissions curve downward, missing targets set by climate scientists (and blowing by 2 degrees Celsius of warming) but not hitting these worst-case scenarios, either.

So. Whew. A little bit. I can stop panicking now, right? The Paris climate agreement (which the US has backed out of) ensures we won’t warm 6 degrees, right? Maybe there are some steps I can tale to personally limit my carbon footprint?

This article gives some helpful tips to continue my Captain Planet-ing. Have one less child (I’ve got none! tick), don’t own a car (tick!), avoid one trans-Atlantic flight (as long as the UK doesn’t deport me, sure!). I already feel much better. There’s not much I can do as an individual. Worrying about whether to cut out the greasy bit of the pizza box so I can recycle the rest is not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, I still feel awful and personally responsible for the increased temperatures and future wars whenever I don’t bring my spork to a take-away. I mean, at least my six years of being vegetarian has saved 4,920 kilograms of carbon.

Next, this article from QZ supports the decision I made last year to stop buying consumer items by stating that even buying “ethical” goods doesn’t make a difference, because that item still had to be produced and shipped and packaged. (See further: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.)

The problem is that even though we want to make the right choices, it’s often too little, too late. For example, friends are always asking me where to take their old clothes so that they are either effectively recycled or make it into the hands of people who need them. My answer? It doesn’t matter where you take them: It will always end up in the exact same overloaded waste stream, which may or may not eventually dump it in Haiti. This isn’t your fault for trying to do the right thing: It’s the fault of the relentless trend cycle of fast fashion, which is flooding the secondhand market with a glut of clothes that Americans don’t want at any price.

It also brings up the fact that the sustainability movement is privileged and elitist, as quality “ethical” goods are too expensive for the average consumer, which goes back to Terry Pratchett’s $50 boot argument. If you can afford it, make sure the things you buy now are quality, and then stop buying them; instead of going shopping, lobby for change, and instead of spending $20 on a t-shirt, donate it to a charity of your choice.

My friend Elinor responded to this by writing an article on ethical food consumption, which is still something I struggle with:

She ignores the pivotal role of food — which we cannot simply consume less of. She ignores the fact that one of the biggest solutions to climate change comes down to individual food consumption choices. She doesn’t mention that one of the “structural incentives” that keeps some companies with unsustainable business models in business, is the fact that their consumers don’t give a shit. Or we do give a shit, but when we’re standing in the supermarket aisle trying to make a snap decision about what to eat for dinner whilst speaking on the phone to a friend about our holiday plans, good intentions do not translate into conscious decisions.

I have this problem daily. Do I spend £1 more on organic canned chickpeas when I don’t know what “organic” means here? Do I avoid the packaging waste by getting dry chickpeas by the kilo in my reusable shopping bag, which will require an additional shopping trip, a day to soak, and the risk that my housemates will throw them out before I get around to cooking them? I often just give up and buy the 50p can, but at least I go for the dented can nobody else will buy. This article directs readers to a further list of climate actions, 17 of which have to do with food, particularly food waste. She stresses that “the fact that the world is in a mess doesn’t make it more difficult to tidy your bedroom, and tidying your bedroom doesn’t really stop you from cleaning up the world.” Change starts at home, and it’s good to set an example. My friend Amy has inspired me to carry my own tupperware and bring my own mug to cafes. I hope my refusal to drink water from disposable plastic bottles inspires someone else. I’ve overcome my phone anxiety to call politicians. Small steps will make small changes; a (slightly nonsensical) Malian proverb says “little by little, the bird builds its nest”.* As individuals we must believe in our collective power to make a bigger difference. Let’s be slightly less doomsday about it: we can’t focus on cutting the grease stain from the pizza box when we’re curled up in the corner panicking.


*Thanks to my friend Jonathan for this.

Later update: having watched the new Game of Thrones season opener, I noted the Archmaester’s warning, summarised thus by AV Club:

The Archmaester tries to convince Sam that this is just another threat to the realm in a long list of threats, and that none of the past ones have truly brought the apocalypse some predicted: however, the whole point of this story is that this is no normal winter, and “Dragonstone” successfully makes clear that everyone but Jon Snow has a long way to go before they realize there is more at stake than the Iron Throne.

True that.



June 23 Link Roundup

I’ve been talking about this article a lot recently – it details the rise of the passport as the source of one’s identity, replacing the actual embodied self.

In 1923, a Danish man traveling in Germany reportedly had to regrow his mustache before border officials would permit him to return home. When clean-shaven, he did not resemble the photograph in his passport, a document that had only recently become essential for travel across national boundaries.

A sub-roundup of AIs naming things. Turns out AI is very good at naming guinea pigs but very bad at naming paint colors.  AI is also fantastically inept at punning, discussed in this puntastic interview with the author of a book on the competitive punning community. Looking forward to reading this one!

Joe: Twitter lately is like a sadness gauntlet filled with clowns and Nazis, and the light at the end of it is your house on fire. So yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of a pun competition.

(7/1 Update: AIs are terrible at inspirational posters!)

All you wanted to know about the vaginal microbiome. I mean, I have many more questions.

I was previously unsure of the ethics of market shorting. This article has not made me less sure. Is it a crime, or is it just skeezy? Is activist shorting less skeezy because it exposes more corruption, or more skeezy because it exposes corruption for personal gain? I’m not even sure what ethical framework I should use to analyze it.

UChicago news: the adorable scav team STTR-BBOY recreated the iconic scene of the snake-iguana chase from Planet Earth II in the library stacks, site of the infamous 2007 scav video (since deleted) “Trapped in Crerar”, a parody of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”. That library is really a quality filming location.

May 19 Link Roundup

This family kept a slave. Read the entire account – it’s horrifying. (For more on complex caregiver-child relationships, read this.)

Lola never got that allowance. She asked my parents about it in a roundabout way a couple of years into our life in America. Her mother had fallen ill (with what I would later learn was dysentery), and her family couldn’t afford the medicine she needed. “Pwede ba?” she said to my parents. Is it possible? Mom let out a sigh. “How could you even ask?,” Dad responded in Tagalog. “You see how hard up we are. Don’t you have any shame?”

How do painkillers find what hurts?

Here’s an interesting discussion on addressing instructors by their formal titles. In high school we called our teachers Mr./Ms. Lastname, but in college most of my professors didn’t seem bothered. I’ve always preferred students to call me by my first name, but I also like to cultivate an atmosphere of openness and not feel like I’m always quizzing them (plus, I use the title Mx, which just confuses things). I wonder if I’m downplaying my status as instructor? Also, British students call teachers Miss, which sounds so infantile to me as an adult.

Good points about bike lanes. I am all for more bike lanes on busy roads, and ensuring that those bike lanes DO NOT also function as parking spots or pavements (I’m looking right at you, Kentish Town), but on small roads they feel less safe because cars think they can overtake in too small a space.

For those of you unaware (and that is an increasingly higher percentage of people I know), I used to participate in the world’s largest scavenger hunt. It covers 4 days, the list can be up to 20 pages, and participants are frequently found wandering around in a state of confused exhaustion wearing ridiculous costumes and muttering seemingly nonsensical verses that are, in fact, bizarre list items. I have roasted a lamb on a homemade spit and stuffed it with a chicken and a Cornish hen, had a book signed by Jane Goodall while dressed as a video game character (complete with arrow above my head), and raced to absorb the water in a kiddie pool wearing a suit of armor made of sponges. Here’s this year’s list.

I’m doing my viva (thesis defence) Monday at 3pm GMT. Send whatever scientifically-valid good vibes you can in my general direction!

April 14 Link Roundup

T. rex had many nerve endings in its snout, which palaeontologists argue indicates that they nuzzled before mating like modern crocodiles. The article has one of the best titles – “Tyrannosaurus rex was a sensitive lover.” It anthropomorphizes and makes grandiose assumptions!

Researchers argue that footbinding was not solely aesthetic, but economically important as it kept young girls housebound and thus entrenched in domestic tasks and production.

Here’s a handy guide to surviving the next pandemic! Good luck, all. I’ll see you at Svalbard.

More on the Monty Hall Problem, also known as “what’s behind door #3?” Basically, we are so tied to our interpretation of the mathematics behind it that we can’t be swayed by the correct probability of winning.

Hannah Rose Woods explains why there aren’t many women on University Challenge. I competed on Eggheads a few years ago, and I am still convinced that our team was picked at auditions because of our diversity (two women, and two non-white team members); the rest of the teams auditioning alongside us were uniformly white, male, and mostly 25-40.

The British Museum used to keep a posse of cats! They were used for rat- and mouse-catching. I imagine though they solved one conservation problem, they created a host of others…

This week there was a rave on the Bakerloo line (I wasn’t there)!

Last week I won a contest and got to see the European premiere of the first episode of American Gods. The series is based on my favorite book, and I am so eager for the rest of the episodes! Here are some pictures of me with Yetide Badaki, who plays Bilquis (fantastically), and a buffalo.

A History of Legs in 5 Objects

Originally posted April 11, 2017 on the Student Engager blog.

My research focuses on the tibia, the largest bone in the lower leg. You probably know it as the shin bone, or the one that makes frequent contact with your coffee table resulting in lots of yelling and hopping around; that’s why footballers often wear shinguards. The intense pain is because the front of the tibia is a sharp crest that sits directly beneath the skin. There are a lot of leg-related objects in UCL Museums, so here’s a whirlwind tour of a few of them!

One of the few places you can see a human tibia is the Petrie’s pot burial. This skeleton from the site of Badari in Egypt has rather long tibiae, indicating that the individual was quite tall. The last estimation of his height was made in 1985, probably using regression equations based on the lengths of the tibia and femur (thigh bone): these indicated that he was almost 2 meters tall. However, the equations used in the 80s were based on a paper from 1958, which used bone lengths from Americans who died in the Korean War. There are two problems that we now know of with this calculation: height is related to genetics and diet, and different populations have differing limb length ratios.

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari (UC4856-8).

The Americans born in the 1930s-40s had a vastly different diet from predynastic Egyptians, and the formulae were developed for (and thus work best when testing) white Americans. This is where limb length ratios come into play. Some people have short torsos and long legs, while others have long legs and short torsos. East Africans tend to have long legs and short torsos, and an equation developed for the inverse would result in a height much taller than he actually was! Another thing to notice is the cartilage around the knee joint. At this point in time, the Egyptians didn’t practice artificial mummification – but the dry conditions of the desert preserved some soft tissue in a process called natural mummification. Thus you can see the ligaments and muscles connecting the tibia to the patella (knee cap) and femur.

The Petrie also has a collection of ancient shoes and sandals. I think the sandals are fascinating because they show a design that has obviously been perfected: the flip flop. One of my favorites is an Amarna-period child’s woven reed sandal featuring two straps which meet at a toe thong. The flip flop is a utilitarian design, ideal for keeping the foot cool in the heat and protecting the sole of the foot from sharp objects and hot ground surfaces. These are actually some of the earliest attested flip flops in the world, making their appearance in the 18thDynasty (around 1300 BCE).

An Egyptian flip-flop. UC769.

An ancient Egyptian flip-flop (UC769).


Another shoe, this time from the site of Hawara, is a closed-toe right leather shoe. Dating to the Roman period, this shows that flip flops were not the only kind of shoe worn in Egypt. This shoe has evidence of wear and even has some mud on the sole from the last time it was worn.  This shoe could have been worn with knit wool socks, one of which has been preserved. However, the Petrie Collection’s sock has a separate big toe, potentially indicating that ancient Egyptians did not have a problem wearing socks and sandals together, a trend abhorrent to modern followers of fashion (except to fans of Birkenstocks).


Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271) and sock (UC16767.

Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271).


sock UC16767

Ancient Egyptian sock (UC16767).

The Grant Museum contains a huge number of legs, but only one set belonging to a human. For instructive purposes, I prefer to show visitors the tibiae of the tiger (Panthera tigris) on display in the southwest corner of the museum. These tibiae show a pronounced muscle attachment on the rear side where the soleus muscle connects to the bone. In bioarchaeology, we score this attachment on a scale of 1-5, where 5 indicates a really robust attachment. The more robust  – attachment, the bigger the muscle; this means that either the individual had more testosterone, which increases muscle size, or they performed a large amount of activity using that muscle. (We wouldn’t score this one because it doesn’t belong to a human.) In humans, this could be walking, running, jumping, or squatting. Practice doing some of these to increase your soleal line attachment site!

The posterior tibia of a tiger.

The tibia of a tiger.

Moving to the Art Museum, we can see legs from an aesthetic rather than practical perspective. A statue featuring an interesting leg posture the legs is “Spinario or Boy With Thorn”, a bronze statue produced by Sabatino de Angelis & Fils of Naples in the 19th century. It is a copy of a famous Greco-Roman bronze, one of very few that has not been lost (bronze was frequently melted down and reused). The position of the boy is rather interesting: he is seated with one foot on the ground and the opposite foot on his knee as he examines his sole to remove a thorn. This is a very human position, and shows the versatility of the joints of the hip, knee, and ankle. The hip is adducted and outwardly rotated, the knee is flexed, and the ankle is everted. It’s rare for the leg to be shown in such a bent position in art, as statues usually depict humans standing or walking.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Bipedalism, or walking on two legs, is one of the traits we associate with being human. It’s rare in the animal world. Hopefully next time you look at a statue, slip on your flip flops, or go for a jog, you’ll think of all the work your tibiae are doing for you – and keep them out of the way of the coffee table.

(OK, I know that was six objects… but imagine the sock inside the shoe!)


April 7 Link Roundup

First, three stories about robots:

  1. A child believes a water boiler is a robot; talks to and hugs it (she, for one, welcomes her new overlords)
  2. A researcher created a neural network that produces horrifying and hilarious menu items such as Completely Meat Chocolate Pie
  3. An engineer built and married a robot in a ceremony that was not legally binding

Here’s a fascinating article on how research bias shows up in data.

I love learning about diseases that doctors don’t believe in because they’re don’t have an apparent physical cause; nevertheless, they are no less real to the sufferers than any more easily diagnosable condition. Delusional parasitosis is one of these, and many cases are brought to entomologists.

In 20 years, Syria will be the Bosnia of today. Defectors and escapees report that hospitals are the sites of mass torture.  CN: torture.

Documents signed by senior government and security officials acknowledged the upsurge in deaths, at times complaining that the bodies were building up.

“It’s impossible to interrogate, torture and kill tens of thousands of detainees without a system in place,” said Scott Gilmore, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability. “Before the revolution, the regime was not generating thousands of dead bodies. Then all of a sudden it was. So what did you do with them?”

Waking surgery is now a thing. I… I don’t know if I could do it.

This article about ancient cannibalism has some problems… two of which are sample size and the binary of nutritional vs social. But it is a handy guide to “average” caloric values for various body parts.

When asked whether he thought his friends and colleagues would show up to his next dinner party after reading about his latest paper, Dr. Cole said yes. But he added that he’d most likely just serve vegetables.

Finally, your NSFW of the week: an 18th-century illustrated guide to sex positions, using characters from classic mythology. Follow it up with biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes’ brief piece on human sexuality.

March 31 Link Roundup

The double standard that saved Obamacare – apparently people only pay attention when straight cis white men are affected, with historical examples.

Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal ran articles by men telling women to pop pills to make their depression evaporate. Women hosted dinner parties where they plopped Miltown in their martinis, and Cartier jewelers sold a bracelet that doubled as a holder for a Miltown pill.

Another essay on what happens to the last member of a species, with pondering on the nature of being. Read it in concert with Elizabeth Kolbert’s Recall of the Wild.

Having your children sleep alone is strongly associated with capitalism, suburbia, and excessive space. I’ve often advocated sleeping separately to friends who find themselves in couples with incompatible sleep habits, but this is only because we spend 30-odd years learning how we best sleep individually. Perhaps if we grew up sleeping communally we wouldn’t have so many problems – I wonder how strongly our idea of individual circadian rhythms is influenced by this.

A fascinating story of a hand transplant. (CN: lots of privilege.) I recently attended a lecture by Ross Reynolds, a researcher exploring the aesthetics of prosthetics; I wonder why Koch and his doctor, Kobi Azari, decided to go down the transplant route instead of prosthetics as he did for his leg.

March 24 Link Roundup

Are chins what make us human? I’m a fan of spandrels; I like to remind people that evolution isn’t perfect, it’s “meh, guess this works long enough to keep you breeding.” Or, as my colleague Ella Al-Shamahi remarks in her comedy, “the chin is the penis of the face.”

Maybe it’s about sex, then? Men typically have bigger chins than women, and stronger chins are often equated with attractiveness. Perhaps the chin is a sexual ornament, the human equivalent of a stag’s antlers or a peacock’s tail.

Here are some ancient Chinese sex toys. Thanks, internet! (The link is SFW depending on where you work.)

Another article on underground psychedelic therapy in the US, mostly focusing on MDMA. I attended a lecture recently on “The LSD Psychotherapists”, presenting first-person perspectives from therapists working legally within the EU, showing promising responses for a variety of conditions.

“Sometimes the medicine can stabilize someone in a difficult situation. Sometimes it stirs up madness, so they can process that. Some people feel rejuvenated and ready to go back into their lives, but other people feel frazzled, spent, fragmented. I’ve had a few people say, ‘That shattered who I thought I was.’ ”

John Hawks has some criticism about the Neanderthal oral microbiome study, including potential contamination, “sloppy genome assembly”, and unmapped genomes of possible food species.

Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK are often sent letters demanding payment, making them too afraid of deportation to seek prenatal care. This is illegal. If you know/work with anyone seeking asylum, refer them to this document.