> Home News October 7, 2011 – If Teeth Could Talk: Science Abroad Students Research Pre-Historic Ontario in South Africa

October 7, 2011 – If Teeth Could Talk: Science Abroad Students Research Pre-Historic Ontario in South Africa

by Christine Elias — Friday, Oct 07, 2011

October 7, 2011
Sarah Witol

Learning to a measure a tooth at a pre-program session.

This past summer, Susan Pfeiffer of the Department of Anthropology traveled to South Africa with six undergraduate students as part of U of T's Science Abroad program. Their aim was to research archaeologically derived human tissue samples in the Stable Light Isotope Laboratory at the University of Cape Town.

The tissue samples were teeth; each student was responsible for some of the fifty specimens in the collection, representing various Ontario populations, which they analyzed at University of Cape Town using stable isotope technology. “We were examining Canadian aboriginal teeth in order to reconstruct the population's diet as well as make predictions about their environment,” said Magdalena Sobol of Victoria College, one of the six students who participated.

After a week spent in Toronto learning how to measure, take moulds of and prepare the teeth for the trip, the group journeyed to South

Heather Kristjanson at Devil’s Peak overlooking Cape Town.

Africa at the end of May. Upon arrival in Cape Town, the students took part in a one-week course on stable isotope analysis where they learned alongside other students from throughout Africa. They then spent June applying what they had learned to the materials brought from Ontario archaeological sites.

“The program really emphasized to our students what an international endeavor research is,” said Pfeiffer. “They also benefited from seeing the challenges that some students in Africa face who don’t have as strong an educational background, who haven’t had the same kind of educational opportunities.”

The experiential learning process of Science Abroad, in which students earn course credit through their work in real-world lab situations, provided the students with a unique opportunity to apply the theory they had learned.

For Heather Kristjanson, the hands-on training in the preparation of samples was the highlight of the program. “If in the future we want to do this, we will know how; that’s something that not a lot of students will get. Although mass spectrometers are available in Ontario, it’s expensive to run these tests, so as an undergraduate student, you wouldn’t have this kind of access to the equipment.”

For Sobol, who has now decided to pursue a major in biological anthropology, the location of the program added to the learning experience. “At the University of Cape Town, I was able to work and interact with some of the top researchers in the field. More importantly, South Africa contains some of the oldest archaeological and human fossil sites in the world, some of which I was able to visit. The realization that I was walking on the same ground as our ancestors did over a hundred thousand years ago was awe-inspiring.”

The University of Toronto science abroad program is open to all undergraduate science students and is run by Woodsworth College.

Sarah Witol is the Summer Abroad Programs Manager