11 Feb 2019

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

11th February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. At present, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. UNESCO and UN-Women decided to establish an annual International Day to recognize the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. In this blog we hear from Dr Ophélie Lebrasseur, a zooarchaeologist specialising in ancient and modern DNA, on what inspired her to pursue a career in science.

I’ve always wanted to be an archaeologist. Once, my grandfather took me to a dinosaur exhibit tucked away under a blue circus tent. In my 6-years-old mind, the line between archaeology and palaeontology was blurry. But I came home to my parents knowing I wanted to discover the past. There was only one main problem to deal with: What if they dig everything up before I am old enough to be an archaeologist, and I am left with nothing to find? It turns out I needn’t have worried. There will always be artefacts and bone remains waiting to be unearthed. The question is then ‘how do you use these to shed light on our past?’ And more importantly in our modern world ‘can these findings contribute to building a healthier and more secure future?’

The first step of my journey started at the University of Durham, where I studied for a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Archaeology. My undergraduate dissertation gave me a good grasp on animal bones and how I could read them to reconstruct past human-animal relationships and economy. In other words: identifying the bone, the species, the age-at-death, the butchery marks, the palaeopathology, the list goes on. The question of health was one I was already unknowingly exploring. The site under study was a French site in Normandy which had not only been a major target during the Hundred Years War, it was also seriously hit by the Black Death. The plummeting of the population by 95% and the flooding of surrounding pastures to defend the town against attacks had caused a reduction in the natural height of domesticated animals, or so I hypothesized.

I then took my zooarchaeology skills a step further. I was, and still am, passionate about the application of scientific methods developed by biologists, chemists, physicists to ancient material and archaeological questions. And so I continued in Durham with an Master of Science (MSc) in Human Palaeoecology, learning about reconstructing the dynamics between past environments, humans and animals. What also drew me to this degree was the biomolecular component. At that point in my career, I knew I didn’t want to specialise in a particular time period or geographical region. It felt too ‘restrictive’ somehow, and I wanted to be free to explore every corner of the earth at whatever time period. My way to achieving this freedom was to become an expert in a scientific technique which stirred my curiosity and interest: ancient DNA. My dissertation took me to Dr (now Prof) Greger Larson’s lab, where I learned how to identify the origins of domesticated animals on the island of Mauritius through ancient mitochondrial DNA. Reconstructing human movement via proxies (specifically ancient animal genetics) had taken a hold of me.

It so happened that I was at the right place at the right time. Greger had just obtained a couple of grants, both of which included PhD positions. And so, with the path clear before me, I applied and was offered a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) on the dispersal of the Lapita Cultural Complex in Oceania through modern dogs and chickens - the idea being that these animals were located on such remote islands they would most surely have retained their ancient genetic signatures. Except I couldn’t make head or tail of my results. That’s when Greger turned to me and said “I don’t think we’re asking the right question. Everyone so far has assumed you could retrace ancient dispersals and domestication using modern DNA, but it’s never been tested or proven”. And so began the last six months of my PhD, revealing that you couldn’t solely use modern DNA to directly look back into the past, because modern populations are very rarely direct representatives of past populations.

My first postdoc at the University of Oxford was a most fun project pinpointing the introduction and dispersal of chickens in this part of the world. I worked with numerous archaeologists bringing various lines of evidence to the question, including ancient genetics. But the most important outcome of this project was a follow-up side-study funded by the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) looking at empowering women in Ethiopia through chicken production and cultural heritage. It was a very short project of six months, but it introduced me to the concept that archaeology could play a role in shaping our future, not only scientifically but also culturally.

I remained in Oxford until I was offered a postdoctoral position on the One Health Horn project by the University of Liverpool. Based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I, along with Prof Keith Dobney back in Liverpool, are responsible for bringing the archaeological side to this One Health project. My current research aims to look at how past environments and climate affected the spread of pastoral communities and their animals in the Horn of Africa; how animals adapted to their environments genetically, and how current selection pressures affect these acquired traits. Quite novel is the integration of my archaeological results with other findings from team members of different backgrounds (epidemiology, veterinary, microbiology, disease surveillance to name but a few). I am eager to see how combining our disciplines can help in making better-informed policies.
The application of archaeogenetics to tackle global challenges is very much in its infancy. But it is burgeoning and slowly spreading. I look forward to being one of its pioneers, and seeing its growth as we collaboratively strive for a healthier future.

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