A non-expert's guide to the hype: Why is the Denisovan-Neanderthal "hybrid" such a big deal?

Estimated reading time: 9 mins (1906 words) So, you may have heard that a paper was recently published on the genome of a girl who lived around 90,000 years ago and was half-Neanderthal and half-Denisovan. Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, MY MOM WAS A NEANDERTHAL AND MY DAD WAS A DENISOVAN — Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer) August 22, 2018 It kinda made the news… Lots of people were excited, not just geneticists and researchers working with human fossils. And my favorite thing about a science story going viral is that it brings out the comedy gold: I'm picturing a 13 year old starting secondary school and telling her new friends: "me mam's a neanderthal, dad's a denisovan, bit of a nasty shock for him when he found out." — Aoife Hardesty (@aoife_hardesty) August 27, 2018 Do me like you're a neanderthal woman and I'm a denisovan man. — Bʀɪᴀɴɪᴀᴄ® (@BGH70) August 24, 2018  To be fair, even Nature’s story on this publication was feeling cheeky:  But the ultimate tweets were without a doubt the Monty Python references: This is actually fascinating stuff, but I can't read "Her mother was a Neanderthal, and her father was a Denisovan" without hearing John Cleese's French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. — Jon Hancock (@BigJackBrass) August 23, 2018  The Neanderthal-Denisovan ancient mashup makes me think of this. — Sarah Parcak (@indyfromspace) August 22, 2018  And while the news articles that ran on this story gave a good overview of why researchers were excited about it, without the historical context of how we’ve understood human evolution until now, it can be really hard to understand just how incredible this discovery is. So let’s back up a little bit…

How does hair get its color?

Estimated reading time: 7 mins (1295 words) A micrograph of a light and dark hair shaft crossing each other.  Have you ever gotten into a debate about someone’s hair color? “Remember that blonde?” “Which blonde? You mean, Jessie? Her hair is light brown”  “No, it’s clearly dark blonde”  “You need to get your eyes checked, that’s light brown”  /end scene Same goes for dark brown to black. And I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people argue that they’re not ‘redheads’ but actually they’re ‘strawberry blonde’. But how can hair color be so debatable? Well, it’s because hair color categories are an illusion.

Next level science camp: teaching kids about their genetics & genealogy

Estimated reading time: 3 mins (610 words) I’ve watched enough American TV to know that summer camp is a thing in the USA. I was introduced to it through the classic twin movies: It Takes Two and The Parent Trap. These movies have given me the false expectation that you always meet your twin at summer camp, though… And the wondrous thing about American summer camps is that they don’t just come in one flavor! There’s band camp, sports camp, adventure camp, space camp, science camp, anything-you-can-come-up-with-camp! And this summer, I got to see kids doing a very special type of science camp – one that was about genetics and genealogy.

Surprise! Africans are not all the same! (Or why we need diversity in science)

Estimated reading time: 12 mins (2250 words) (Edit: Link to an article I wrote with my advisor about African skin pigmentation genetics in Genome Biology) Last week, a research article was published on skin color variation within Africa. Last week’s article on African skin color in _Science_ READ IT! It is great, well-written, and has amazing figures! I would actually show you some of those figures if I wasn’t terrified of publishers coming after me for copyright infringement (look, I’m trying to finish a Ph.D., here, so I don’t have time to get sued by journal publishers…). If you don’t have access to these journals, hit up your nearest scholar and ask them for a copy (you can email me!). And one of the things I really appreciate in this article is that it’s a study on variation in Africa that actually includes African authors from African institutions. This research is important. That’s why it was picked up by The New York Times and The Atlantic. These articles are all full of people emphasizing that African diversity is an amazing thing that we need to pay attention to! Read both of those articles too because they are full of quotes that got me feeling some type of way: “We knew quite a lot about why people have pale skin if they had European ancestry,” said Nicholas G. Crawford, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the new study. “But there was very little known about why people have dark skin.” – New York Times Few human traits are more variable, more obvious, and more historically divisive than the color of our skin. And yet, for all its social and scientific importance, we know very little about how our genes influence its pigment. **What we do know comes almost entirely from studying people of European descent. **– Ed Yong via The Atlantic And there you have it, in bold, the reason I ended up doing a Ph.D. in biological anthropology. I wanted to know more about human biological variation, and I specifically wanted to focus on African diversity. Why is so much of the research on human trait variation focused on Europeans?

Beginner's guide to hair growth & anatomy

Reading time: 9 minutes (1564 words) We all have to deal with our hair. Maybe you braid it. Maybe you wash it every day with the fanciest of shampoos. Maybe you’ve dyed it every shade of the psychedelic rainbow. Ooooorrrrrr maybe it’s been a hot minute since you’ve grown a full head of hair, so it’s not exactly a daily concern…. I’m sure Patrick Stewart saves mad money on celebrity hairstyling. Either way, we have all dealt with hair at some point in our lives.  Yet we know very little about it. Before I actually started studying hair, I probably spent a good 20 years of my life not knowing anything about it. Clearly, I survived. So I’m not gonna try and tell you that this is essential knowledge or something. BUT, knowing something about what hair actually is and how it grows may help you make more informed decisions about the way you cut/dye/pluck/wax/treat/do whatever to it! And (BONUS!) for those of you who want to understand the science of hair, a basic introduction to hair growth & anatomy will definitely come in handy. Think of this post as the ‘How it’s made‘ of hair: Disclaimer: this is **_not_** how hair is made. I just really like this pasta making machine. _How it’s made_ has excellent pasta GIFs, just saying. Really, the point of this post is to teach you the basics and answer questions like: “What is hair, even?” “How does hair grow?” “If I shave my mustache, will it grow back thicker? And if so, can I prep for Movember this way?” I don’t know what your hair questions are… I’m just guessing here. But without further ado, let’s get on with today’s lesson! Overview of the stuff you’re going to learn: Hair is part of the integumentary system and it is an appendage on the skin. There are two parts to “hair”: the hair shaft and the hair follicle. The layers of the hair shaft are the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla. The hair shaft is produced by the hair follicle, a complex mini-organ in the skin. The hair growth cycle has an anagen (growing), catagen (resting), telogen (shedding) phase. (If you’re really keen and want to read more, there are scientific references at the bottom that are cited throughout the post with little numbers)