The Big Meeting

The author at the 2015 AAPA meetings in St. Louis
The author at the 2015 AAPA meetings in St. Louis, MO
By Kate McGrath
April 01, 2015

Excitement, nervousness, exhaustion. The annual physical anthropology meetings elicit a mix of emotions for a budding scientist. You spend months collecting and analyzing data, weeks preparing a presentation, and in a moment’s time, you’re done. You’ve presented your latest research, and it’s time to relax. Or is it?

This year’s meeting was held in blustery St. Louis in a massive hotel teaming with anthropologists young and old. I found myself lost in a sea of faces, some familiar and others unknown. The three-day conference is always a whirlwind of fifteen-minute talks, coffee breaks, poster sessions, more coffee, visits to the bar, and finally dinner, in that order. Sleep is the last priority, often sacrificed to squeeze in one last meeting with a new collaborator or an old friend.

This year I presented a poster about stress-related defects in the teeth of mountain gorillas. It may seem an odd way to study stress in a living species, but because teeth grow in layers somewhat like tree rings, we can figure out exactly when each gorilla experienced stress as they developed, just as we can determine the timing of droughts using dendrochronology. Typically gorillas and other apes in museums don’t have associated records detailing their every life event, but we have the rare opportunity to study gorillas that were observed by researchers throughout their lives. These gorillas have names, families, medical histories, and detailed notes on their social interactions. We plan to reference these records to determine what specific kinds of stress caused dental defects in these gorillas to provide the first data of this kind in wild primates.

Although this story is far from finished, it was great to receive feedback from other researchers in my little corner of the academic universe. There is only so much that can be said over email, and so much more than can be accomplished in person. As a graduate student, it’s important to realize that the papers and books I read are written by humans and not all-knowing sages purposely withholding the key to a perfect dissertation. We are all just doing the best we can with the time we have. While I’m here, I’m happy to cross paths with the few other people on Earth who care about stress lines in teeth as much as I do.