My work on power and materiality unfolds in four areas of research.
1. Sociopolitical transformation in the Ancient World
Large scale sociopolitical change can have dramatic consequences for human and non-human biology through factors such as increasing violence, malnutrition, disease, and mass displacements. However, studying the effects of these events over long periods of time in living populations can often be difficult or impossible. Studies of ancient populations, on the other hand, offer us invaluable glimpses into how long term sociopolitical change affected humans societies in the past, because factors such as violence and malnutrition can leave tell-tale marks on human remains that can be identified in the archaeological record. In addition to these visible marks on bones, these events may also lead to changes at the molecular level through differences in DNA methylation, where biochemical tags are added or removed from DNA in response to lived experiences. My research has helped pioneer the reconstruction of methylation from ancient DNA, and has applied these methods to understanding the DNA-level effects of sociopolitical change among the Wari of Peru and the Teotihuacanos of central Mexico, some of the earliest expansive states of the ancient world. These studies provide important insights into the interplay of social and biological forces, showing how shifting regimes of power shape biology over many centuries.
2. The epigenetic impacts of the Trail of Tears
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 resulted in the forced and violent removal of many indigenous peoples from the southeastern United States to lands west of the Mississippi River, a deadly event that became remembered as the Trail of Tears. In collaboration with indigenous communities in the South, we have been working with populations east of the Mississippi where some people 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 are currently assessing genome-wide patterns of DNA methylation in these communities to evaluate the ongoing effects of Indian Removal on indigenous peoples of the South today.
3. The genetic & Epigenetic impacts of cotton farming
This research is 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 exacted sometimes uneven but unfailingly dramatic tolls on human bodies that may have contributed to many biological disparities in health that we see today. In this project I am reconstructing the epigenetic effects of exploitative labor practices across the cotton belts of the American South. In addition to understanding how these practices may have reshaped the genomes of slaves and laborers, 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 so doing this project seeks to understand the ways that colonialism has been scripted simultaneously onto the human and more-than-human world.
4. Feminist & Queer STS