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Rita Austin looks at human remains from all over the world to try and understand past human experiences and disease processes, particularly for tuberculosis and syphilis.

In this podcast, she shares with listeners

  • The interdisciplinary methods of molecular, morphological, and archival studies that inform her work;
  • The history of tuberculosis and syphilis as pathogens; and
  • The stories we can gather from bone lesions, DNA ancestry, and teeth calculus. 

Dr. Rita Austin is a Predoctoral Research Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Natural History, where she works to evaluate their human biological anthropology collections to better inform destructive sampling decisions made by the museum.

She recently obtained her PhD from the University of Oklahoma. She talks about her work in this podcast, explaining the way researchers use methods like DNA ancestry, skeletal studies, and teeth calculus to reconstruct the impact of pathogens in the near and distant past.

Her studies have focused specifically on tuberculosis and syphilis and she explains that TB is ancient—we have been evolving with it for millennia. Syphilis on the other hand is much more recent and was first documented in the 1400s; however, there are subspecies that are more ancient and non-venereal.

She adds that these diseases still exist today and explains how TB invades the body in more detail. Her work helps scientists better understand these pathogens in the past and how they have changed over time: a better understanding can help us target them now and be prepared for how they may continue to evolve.

She also explains one of her overarching interests, namely how cultural practices inform and affect health care. She adds some examples and reminders listeners that one’s socioeconomic status affected one’s health. People were touched by the plague, for example, due to different socioeconomic situations. She comments that being able to protect one’s self from sickness is a privilege.

Finally, she shares some interesting examples of how researchers have reconstructed end-of-life circumstances by looking at human remains, including a story about what some nun’s teeth told about the ink they used.

To find out more about her work, see the University of Oklahoma’s Laboratories of Molecular Anthropology and Microbiome Research page at

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