My work focuses on the ways that power and inequality shape biology in both ancient and contemporary societies. Merging genetics, epigenetics, ancient DNA, queer and feminist science studies, and indigenous feminisms, I study how the political becomes biological, and how the biological becomes political. Currently, my work falls into four major areas of research, outlined below.
Ancient Urbanism and Sociopolitical Transformation
The rise and decline of urban societies can dramatically impact human biology through processes such as migration, the emergence of social inequalities, and shifts in diet and exposure to trauma. I am interested in how the emergence and deterioration of large urban centers can influence human genetic and epigenetic diversity across class, gender, ethnic, and geopolitical lines.
In previous work (Smith et al. 2015), I developed novel methods for reconstructing cytosine methylation in ancient DNA, a genetic modification that can result from differences in lived experiences. Using these methods, I have showed that the decline of the ancient Wari State in the central Peruvian Andes was associated with significant changes in genomic methylation. These epigenetic differences mirror changes in diet and increases in violence that were associated with sociopolitical transformation in the Wari heartland. This work has provided insights into the interplay of social and biological forces, showing how shifting regimes of power can shape biology over many centuries.
Building on this work, I have launched large-scale, paleogenomic projects at the ancient cities of Teotihuacan and Caracol that will trace how the rise and decline of early urban centers shaped the genetic and epigenetic variation of Mesoamerica.
Settler Colonialism and Indian Removal
The removal of Indigenous peoples and the theft of Indigenous lands are fundamental to the existence of the American settler state. In collaboration with Indigenous community members and research partners, my work focuses on the epigenetic impacts of removal and how historical trauma continues to affect Indigenous peoples today.
There are many historical and ongoing removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral homelands in the US. My work focuses on the set of removals that resulted from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which sanctioned deadly relocations of many indigenous peoples from the southeastern United States to lands west of the Mississippi River, an event that became remembered as the Trail of Tears. In collaboration with indigenous communities in the US South, we have been working with populations east of the Mississippi where some communities have continued to live on or near their original homelands, as well as their close relatives living west of the Mississippi who are descended from the survivors of the Trail of Tears. We have assessed genome-wide methylation patterns in each of these communities to evaluate the epigenetic effects of Indian Removal on indigenous peoples of the American South today.
This research is in very early stages, and is broadly concerned with the ways that cotton agroindustrialism has reshaped human and non-human genomes through shifting racial contexts of exploitative labor in the American South. Ranging from slave labor, to tenant farming and sharecropping of the early 20th century, to the migrant laborers of today, cotton farming has had different levels of impact on a variety of communities that may have contributed to biological disparities that we see today.
In this project, I will reconstruct the epigenetic effects of exploitative labor practices across the cotton belt of the American South, especially Texas, which remains one of the world's primary cotton producers. In addition to understanding how these practices may have reshaped the genomes of people, this project also seeks to understand the more-than-human aspects of cotton agroindustrialism, and looks at how the cotton genome itself has also been remade by genetic modification. In doing so, this project seeks to understand the ways that colonialism has been simultaneously scripted onto the human and more-than-human world.
In "Otherworldly Conversations; Terran Topics; Local Terms", Donna Haraway asks "when were love and knowledge not co-constitutive?" Heteronormativity has given us the academy as we know it, where the male/female divide has informed the division of mind from body, nature from culture, and science from the humanities, among others. However, queer people have rarely taken the existence of these binaries as a given. My work highlights how the embodied knowledges of queer scientists are shifting the landscape of science and the lab.