Research

My work is focused on human adaptation, specifically to changes in the environment or to a new environment (see Publications). My past work (see below) focused on stress and resilience in past populations using methods in bioarchaeology. While I remain somewhat active in that field, my primary interest is the human sense of smell in everyday settings. Why? The majority of research conducted on the human sense of smell is conducted in labs using high quality pure odors delivered directly to the nose. These studies provide a little understanding of how humans receive and behaviorally interpret olfactory cues from complex mixtures in dynamic environments–i.e., simply knowing that humans can detect X odor at Y threshold does not result in us knowing if humans can detect X odor in complex and dynamic odor mixtures that constitute natural (including built) smellscapes.

Humans have not lived in natural settings (in the strictest sense of the definition) for the majority of our evolutionary history. In the secondary sense of the word natural, we have lived in spaces that are ‘in agreement with the character or makeup of, or circumstances surrounding’ our species. We have been modifying our environments for a long time and contemporary people occupy natural spaces made or caused by human activity. Understanding what might be a wild or natural space for humans requires a contextual understanding of the word relative to our species.

OLD NOSES This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and addresses whether the olfactory repertoires of ancient hominins are distinct from modern humans. Humans have distinct repertoires from other primates, including our closets relatives, chimpanzees. But, no research has yet shown that all members of our genus, Homo, share an olfactory repertoires. This collaborative work with Duke University identified novel variants in the paleogenomes of extinct hominins and humans, reconstructed their olfactory receptors, and experimentally tested their functional responses to odorants.

SMELLING IN THE WILD This project is funded by the British Academy and explores hunter-gatherer olfactory ability through collaborative field work. By testing indigenous populations in their natural environments, the larger aim of the study is to understand the link between the biology and genetics of olfaction and sensory ecology pressures acting on it.

SMELLING IN THE CITY This project explores linkages between pollution, well-being, and olfaction in urban settings. A particular focus of this work is sensory inequities and will explore olfactory ability, pollution exposure, and the lived sensory environment.

SMELLING IN THE PAST This project is focused on the historical impact on biology from pollution. Pollution is an established etiology for some olfactory dysfunction but the type of pollution is not yet established, even if traffic pollution is a likely source. A focus of this work is indirect measures of reduced olfactory ability using skeletal markers from collections dating to before and after the Industrial Revolution.

BIOARCHAEOLOGY, STRESS, AND RESILIENCE My work in bioarchaeology focused on stress and resilience in past populations, mainly in the Japanese islands. The resilience work includes both theoretical and applied papers. I also have studied late Archaic period hunter-gatherers in North America, the Windover site, and a Mid-Atlantic population of horticulturalists, the Shenks Ferry people at Quaker Hills Quarry. The Windover work focused on morphological variation in hands and feet from activity. A current project is focused on morphological variation from activity in the occipital region of the skull.

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