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Lab News

May 2022

Jablonski to give HOT (Human Origins Today) Topic presentation

Nina Jablonski will present “The Evolution of Skin Tones: A Reflection of Human Adaptation and Health” in a virtual lecture for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s HOT Topic series. Moderated by Briana Pobiner, the virtual event will take place on Thursday May 19, 2022 from 11:30AM – 12:30PM EDT.

Registration is required and available here.

August 2021

Photo of Dr. Mark Shriver, Dr. Tina Lasisi, and Dr. Nina Jablonski at Lasisi's graduation
With her advisors Dr. Mark Shriver (left) and Dr. Nina Jablonski (right), Dr. Tina Lasisi (center) received her Ph.D. in August 2021 after successfully defending her thesis entitled “The Genetic Architecture and Evolutionary Function of Human Scalp Hair Morphology.”

July 2021

From The Conversation – The story of an African children’s book that explains the science of skin colour

Skin We Are In is a landmark South African book for children (and grown-ups) on the subject of skin colour. Published in 2018, it was co-authored by an artist and a scientist, both South African luminaries – the author Sindiwe Magona and the anthropologist and palaeobiologist Nina Jablonski. Here they talk about how – and why – the book came about.

Nina Jablonski writes for The Conversation – Racism has a physical impact on the body – here’s how

“But race thinking has deformed us and society because it’s based on constructs of otherness and difference. These, in turn, underpin expectations of character, intelligence, motivation and behaviour. They can pave the way for the unleashing of suspicion, derogation and dehumanisation.

Racism affects health and often leads to early death. We now know in greater and more disturbing detail how this occurs. It kills directly and abruptly when people are murdered by police or vigilantes, but it also kills through disease. COVID-19 is new, but diseases common to the survival zones of the urban poor have been with us for a long time. It was only a century ago that the bone disease rickets was so common among African American children of eastern US cities that it was considered a rite of passage.”

 

October 2020

Fossils Of 6.4 Million-Year-Old Monkeys Are Among The Oldest Found Outside Of Africa

“The story of how monkeys conquered the world is a remarkable tale that includes an improbable trip across the Atlantic on a floating island that broke away from mainland Africa. In yet another twist, researchers have just uncovered the remains of an ancient species that lived in what is now China some 6.4 million years ago, suggesting that monkeys had reached the Far East at a time when ancient apes still roamed Asia.”

Nina Jablonski to present at the virtual CARTA Symposium, Exploring the Human-Ape ParadoxNina Jablonski to present at the virtual CARTA Symposium, Exploring the Human-Ape Paradox

People can register here for the public session, held on Saturday October 24, beginning at 12 pm (Pacific). Other sessions will be held for CARTA members on October 25, 30, and 31.

Dr. Jablonski will talk about Skin and its importance in human evolution.

Mostly naked, potentially sweaty, and variably colored skin is a hallmark of modern human beings. Skin is often overlooked in discussions of human evolution because it is rarely preserved in the fossil record. But because of its central role as an interface between the outside world and the body, it is essential that we study the evolution of skin and, specifically, how our skin differs from that of our ape relatives. We evolved mostly naked skin early in the evolution of the genus Homo for reasons of temperature regulation. Naked skin with lots of sweat glands makes it possible for people to stay cool while they are physically active in hot environments. The loss of hair meant that we lost important protection against the environment, especially strong sunlight. This is when our ancestors evolved permanently dark skin, rich in the natural sunscreen, eumelanin. Eumelanin absorbs much of the harmful ultraviolet radiation that falls on the Earth’s surface, and is widely used in nature because of its protective properties and its color. Our ancestors living in equatorial Africa had dark skin and little body hair. This was the universal human condition for a long time for all ancient people living in Africa, including the earliest members of our own species, Homo sapiens. When some people left equatorial Africa and moved to less intensely sunny places, like southern Africa, northern and eastern Asia, and Europe, changes occurred in their skin color. This is because people actually needed to have less eumelanin sunscreen in the skin in order to make it possible for some UV rays to penetrate the skin and make vitamin D. As people moved around early in prehistory, their skin color changed according to the intensity of the sunlight under which they lived. Many aspects of our skin are different from those in apes, and have come to be of great interest and social importance. We pay a lot of attention to skin, we show important emotions through our skin, and we spend a lot of time and effort caring for and decorating our skin. So, it’s high time we celebrate its remarkable evolution!

Shuitangba_Mesopithecus_Fig_12Reconstruction by Mauricio AntónOldest Monkey Fossils Outside of Africa Found

Three fossils found in a lignite mine in southeastern Yunnan Province, China, are about 6.4 million years old, indicate monkeys existed in Asia at the same time as apes, and are probably the ancestors of some of the modern monkeys in the area, according to an international team of researchers.

“This is significant because they are some of the very oldest fossils of monkeys outside of Africa,” said Nina G. Jablonski, Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology, Penn State. “It is close to or actually the ancestor of many of the living monkeys of East Asia. One of the interesting things from the perspective of paleontology is that this monkey occurs at the same place and same time as ancient apes in Asia.”

September 2020

Nina Jablonski will present Skin We Are In… Evolution and Skin Color as part of the Penn State NoonTimeU webinar series on Thursday September 24, 2020 at 12pm

What brought about such a diversity of skin colors? How can knowledge about its natural history inform questions surrounding societal notions of skin color and our well-being? Penn State anthropologist Nina Jablonski explores the origins of differing skin colors, their importance to our health, and how this research fits into anthropological history. Her work has been featured in dozens of papers, two books, public education programming, NPR, PBS, late night talk shows, and a TED talk.

Click here to register

August 2020

Nina Jablonski and Barney Pityana write for The Conversation – Why does racism prevail?

“All people belong to one biological species and there are no human “races”. So why does belief in race persist? It may be a scientific misconception, but it is real. It defines the lived experience of many people and determines how governments act and how people treat one another. How did race come to have this power and this durability?

A project was undertaken to address these very questions and to get at the heart of the “everydayness” of race in South Africa and elsewhere. Called the Effects of Race Project, it was started at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa in 2013 as part of a broader project at the institute called Being Human Today.”

January 2020

Finding Your Roots selected for NSF STEM for All Multiplex event

The Finding Your Roots Genetics & Genealogy Curriculum, shown in action in the season 5 finale of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., will be featured in the new National Science Foundation STEM for All Multiplex web site’s inaugural event with a live expert panel Monday Jan. 13th at 1:30ET. The online panel will discuss how to broaden participation in STEM through community engagement and will include “Finding Your Roots” camp instructor and evolutionary biologist C. Brandon Ogbunu.

The NSF STEM for All Multiplex is a new, interactive video platform which enables researchers, educators and parents access to federally funded, innovative programs aimed at improving STEM teaching and learning. Learn about exciting new approaches to STEM learning and join the conversation!

Archived News

kristian cheraineIn the award-winning episode, “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings – Classification,” campers participated in a surprising activity to get them ready for a trip to the Matson Museum of Anthropology at Penn State. Graduate students and mentors showed campers how to find clues in skulls and bones to determine sex, species and evolutionary order.

 The WPSU crew included Kristian Berg (producer/director), Cheraine Stanford (producer) and Tyler Henderson (editor).

The “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings” web series follows 13 young people using science and research skills at a genetics and genealogy camp to answer the question “Who am I?” With an innovative curriculum envisioned by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host of the popular PBS series “Finding Your Roots” and developed by a team led by Penn State professor Nina Jablonski from the College of the Liberal Arts, campers explore their own family history and DNA ancestry with techniques never before used in an educational setting.

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Nina Jablonski talks about skin pigmentation and the skin microbiome in the exhibit “Dans Ma Peau” at the Musée de l’Homme, now running in Paris.

Skin Pigmentation as a Sign of Evolution

Skin is universal. Whether it’s light or dark, young or old, its structure is the same from one individual to another… except for two details: its pigmentation and the bacteria that protects it.

This is what researcher Nina Jablonski, a specialist in anthropology and paleobiology, explained during the exhibit “Dans Ma Peau” at the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris: “By observing the map of solar radiation, we can see how skin color evolved according to sunlight. It’s both a compromise and a great evolutionary story.”

In My Skin: The skin, another history of mankind #4

To mark the fifth anniversary of L’Oréal R&I’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), an exceptional event was organized at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. For this special occasion, two eminent SAB members, Nina Jablonski and Bonnie Bassler, kindly agreed to star in our miniseries. The two experts enthusiastically shared their knowledge in biology and anthropology, shining a new light on topics such as pigmentation or the microbiome.

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Nina Jablonski talks about skin pigmentation and the skin microbiome in the exhibit “Dans Ma Peau” at the Musée de l’Homme, now running in Paris.

Skin Pigmentation as a Sign of Evolution

Skin is universal. Whether it’s light or dark, young or old, its structure is the same from one individual to another… except for two details: its pigmentation and the bacteria that protects it.

This is what researcher Nina Jablonski, a specialist in anthropology and paleobiology, explained during the exhibit “Dans Ma Peau” at the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris: “By observing the map of solar radiation, we can see how skin color evolved according to sunlight. It’s both a compromise and a great evolutionary story.”

In My Skin: The skin, another history of mankind #4

To mark the fifth anniversary of L’Oréal R&I’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), an exceptional event was organized at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. For this special occasion, two eminent SAB members, Nina Jablonski and Bonnie Bassler, kindly agreed to star in our miniseries. The two experts enthusiastically shared their knowledge in biology and anthropology, shining a new light on topics such as pigmentation or the microbiome.

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CSK.DNA.Learn“More than 60 years after scientists made crucial discoveries about the structure of DNA, 20 students at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy gained insight into some of the molecular mysteries that make them who they are. Last fall, while studying life sciences, the girls swabbed their cheeks and sent samples off to Living DNA, a U.K.-based consumer DNA testing company. The big reveal of the test results this week left a big impression on the seventh graders, who were able to make real-world connections to topics they have been studying all semester long including colorism, bigotry and genotypes.” (article by Nedra Rhone, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Don’t Skip the Sunscreen

Dermatologists told us all to avoid sun exposure. Now we know a lack of sun puts darker-skinned people at greater risk for hypertension.

“There’s likely to be a sweet spot for sun exposure, Jablonski said, which would balance out the risks and benefits. That spot will be different for darker-skinned people than for those with medium skin tones, and different still for the very fair. And yes, she said, a need for more sunlight might at least partly account for the fact that African Americans suffer disproportionately from hypertension.”

Read more at How Good Advice on Skin Cancer Can Be Bad for Your Blood Pressure, Bloomberg Opinion, February 4, 2019 by Faye Flam.

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Practical and Ethical Considerations of Using Personal DNA Tests with Middle-School-Aged Learners

Personalized genetic information is not widely utilized as a resource in learning environments, in part because of concerns about data privacy and the treatment of sensitive personal information. Here we describe the implementation of a curriculum centered on analyzing personalized genetic-ancestry test results during two-week science summer camps for middle-school-aged youth. Our research focused on how the examination of personalized DNA results affected learners’ subsequent perceptions and performance, as measured by in-camp pre- and post-tests and surveys, analysis of voluntary student talk captured by audio and video recordings, and periodic one-on-one post-camp follow-ups. The curriculum was grounded in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and focused around the central question of “Who am I?” Campers approached this question via guided lessons designed to shed light on their genetic uniqueness, the many attributes of their genotype and phenotype shared with others, their more distant genetic and evolutionary ancestries, and their roles as active agents in the healthy continuation of their lives. Data relevant to these questions came from edited subsets of ancestry-informative single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and phenotype-related SNPs from the campers’ genotype results, which their parents had received from a direct-to-consumer vendor. Our approaches to data privacy and the discovery, disclosure, and discussion of sensitive information on paternity, carrier status, and ancestry can be usefully applied and modified for many educational contexts. On the basis of our pilot implementations, we recommend additional and expanded research on how to incorporate personalized genetic ancestry information in a variety of learning contexts.

AJHG Speaks to Elizabeth Wright about the Finding Your Roots project

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Shades of complexity: New perspectives on the evolution and genetic architecture of human skin

Like many highly variable human traits, more than a dozen genes are known to contribute to the full range of skin color. However, the historical bias in favor of genetic studies in European and European‐derived populations has blinded us to the magnitude of pigmentation’s complexity. As deliberate efforts are being made to better characterize diverse global populations and new sequencing technologies, better measurement tools, functional assessments, predictive modeling, and ancient DNA analyses become more widely accessible, we are beginning to appreciate how limited our understanding of the genetic bases of human skin color have been. Novel variants in genes not previously linked to pigmentation have been identified and evidence is mounting that there are hundreds more variants yet to be found. Even for genes that have been exhaustively characterized in European populations like MC1R, OCA2, and SLC24A5, research in previously understudied groups is leading to a new appreciation of the degree to which genetic diversity, epistatic interactions, pleiotropy, admixture, global and local adaptation, and cultural practices operate in population‐specific ways to shape the genetic architecture of skin color. Furthermore, we are coming to terms with how factors like tanning response and barrier function may also have influenced selection on skin throughout human history. By examining how our knowledge of pigmentation genetics has shifted in the last decade, we can better appreciate how far we have come in understanding human diversity and the still long road ahead for understanding many complex human traits.

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Variation in human hair ultrastructure among three biogeographic populations

Human scalp hairs are often examined microscopically to study the variation and diversity among a range of visible morphological traits. In this study, we focused on the ultrastructure of human scalp hair within its keratinized matrix, emphasizing, the density and distribution of melanosomes, variation in cuticle thickness within populations, and the relationship of hair fiber ultrastructure with biogeographic ancestry. We used transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to visualize hair cross-sections and generate micron-scale resolution images for analysis of particle morphology and the layered hair matrix. Our results revealed considerable variation in all parameters examined, including the relationship of ultrastructure to biogeographic ancestry. Among the three metapopulations studied (European, African, and East Asian), we identified hair cross-sectional shape, cuticle dimensions, and melanosome distribution as traits that reveal statistically significant ancestry-related patterns. This study establishes trait patterns in hair morphology and ultrastructure among three biogeographically defined metapopulations to improve the current understanding of human variation in hair form and establish a foundation for future studies on the genetic and developmental bases of phenotypic variation in hair ultrastructure related to genotype.

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Finding Your Roots Camp GroupA new middle school genetics and genealogy curriculum developed in part by Penn State will be featured during an online showcase that highlights innovation and STEM education.

The 2018 STEM for All Video Showcase, funded by the National Science Foundation, will be held online at stemforall2018.videohall.com from May 14 to 21. Researchers from Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts helped develop the curriculum “The Finding Your Roots Genetics & Genealogy Curriculum.” WPSU Penn State produced the video that will be featured in the showcase.

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Nina Shuitangba elephantFrom ShareAmerica, a profile of Nina Jablonski’s research (for readers of Chinese).

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One of South Africa’s literary stalwarts, Sindiwe Magona, has teamed up with well-renowned American anthropologist, Nina G. Jablonski, to create Skin we are in, a much-needed book about race and skin colour – for children. Together with award-winning illustrator Lynn Fellman, the trio have researched, written and produced a lively and colourful book to educate children on the science behind skin colour.

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fyr unscriptedFocusing science education on students through genetic and genealogical studies may be the way to increase minorities in the pipeline and engage students who would otherwise deem science too hard or too uninteresting, according to a Penn State anthropologist.

“Henry Louis Gates (Jr.) and I talked about using personalized genetics and genealogy in classrooms as a way to help get kids to understand their heritage and be proud,” said Nina Jablonski, Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology, Penn State. “And especially for African-American kids to connect with their heritage. Then also, equally, as a way to create interest in science.”

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Nina at the 2018 AAAS Annual MeetingNina Jablonski hosted a symposium titled “Understanding Your Roots: STEM Diversity and an Evidence-Based Curriculum” at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, TX on February 17, 2018. Biz Wright (Penn State) and Brandon Ogbunu (Brown Univ.) presented preliminary research and teaching methodologies from the Penn State led Finding Your Roots summer camps, while Aditi Pai (Spelman College) shared details about an undergraduate level genetics and genealogy course. Please see Penn State News for more details.

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Thermoregulatory Properties of Hair: Is Human Hair Morphology Adaptive?

Tina LasisiGraduate student Tina Lasisi presented a poster titled “Thermoregulatory Properties of Hair: Is Human Hair Morphology Adaptive?” at the 17th International Conference on Environmental Ergonomics (ICEE) in Kobe, Japan in November.

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fyr seedlingsFinding Your Roots: The Seedlings web-series by WPSU premiered this fall. Full episodes and related curriculum are available at www.fyrclassroom.org.

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Can two weeks of summer camp have a lasting impact on how students feel about science? Researchers at Penn State are trying to find out by using genealogy research to get kids interested in science and increase diversity in STEM fields. In this edition of Digging Deeper Penn State president Eric Barron explores the impact of the Finding Your Roots summer camp.

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Nina Jablonski’s 2017 Charles M. and Martha Hitchcock Lectures

Dr. Xiaoming Wang, Curator and Head of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and Dr. Denise Su, Curator & Head of Paleobotany and Paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History have published a paper with colleagues (including Nina G. Jablonski) in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology on the discovery of one of the largest otter species ever found. This discovery was made in the Yunnan Province, Southwestern China by an international team of scientists from the United States, France, and China. It represents groundbreaking research into the evolution of a little-known fossil genus of the otter family. (Art by Mauricio Antón)

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The first Finding Your Roots summer camp wrapped up on July 1 2016 at two locations – Penn State University and University of South Carolina.  Kids between 11-13 years old spent two weeks learning about their genetic ancestry, genealogy, and how to use that data to make healthy choices.

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Hsin-Yu Chen, Ph.D. candidate, 2016-17 recipient of the Kligman Graduate Fellowship

Hsin-Yu Chen, Ph.D. candidate in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Management, has been notified that she is the 2016-17 recipient of the Kligman Graduate Fellowship in the College of Health and Human Development.  This one-year fellowship is designed to support graduate students exhibiting excellence, and permits the awardee to focus exclusively on their own research and education.

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Emily Bramel awarded third place in the Health and Life Sciences category of the 2016 Undergraduate Exhibition Award

E.Bramel.posterEmily Bramel, a Schreyer Honors College undergraduate conducting research in the Jablonski Lab, was awarded third place in the Health and Life Sciences category of the 2016 Undergraduate Exhibition Award competition for the poster presentation of her research project, “Quantifying Phenotypic Differences in Human Scalp Hair Morphology Associated with Ancestry and Sex”

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