In my last blog post, I described my decision to concentrate in Human Evolutionary Biology while remaining closely connected to my historical interests through SoHP. In particular, I was able to study pathogens and their impact on human migration patterns, genetics, and societal development. This past semester (my junior spring) was the beginning of a deep dive into my personal research: the potential for co-evolution between Homo sapiens and Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for the Black Death.
I, like many people, was not aware that the Bubonic Plague had existed before or after the famous outbreak that killed around 50% of Europe in the 1340s. But Plague actually maintains a much deeper history. It has now been proven responsible for the Justinianic Plague of the 6th century as well as for continuing pandemics such as the recent outbreaks in Madagascar. In the last few years, new research has shown that Y. pestis is much older than we previously imagined and was in fact present in Bronze Age populations as early as 5000 BCE.
Given this dynamic research about what is perhaps the most historically feared disease, I became naturally interested in learning more and seeing if I was capable of contributing anything to the growing field. I had been invited to attend a previous workshop hosted at Harvard in the fall discussing Y. pestis, which provided me the opportunity to hear globally leading researchers discuss their current questions and hypotheses and to better understand the field at large. It became increasingly clear to me that I was in the best place to be asking questions about Plague: the MHAAM partnership between Harvard and the Max Planck Institute meant that I had front row seats to the developing ideas. And thanks to the encouragement of Professor McCormick and the history department, I was welcomed at the research discussions. And so, I decided to pursue an independent study throughout my junior spring—working closely with both Bridget Alex in the Human Evolutionary Biology and Michael McCormick in the History department—first to educate myself on all existing research concerning the evolution of Yersinia pestis and second, to determine a suitable question for a senior thesis. Since beginning my research, my question has developed from comparing the outbreak patterns of the Justinianic Plague and the Black Death, to the potential impact of the migrations out of the Eurasian Steppes about 5000 years ago on the virulence of Y. pestis, to now looking at the mismatch between the appearance of virulence factors of Y. pestis and the thousands-of-years gap between that appearance and the historical record for Plague pandemics. This development of my thinking has been made possible not only through the dedicated support of my faculty advisors but also the access to cutting edge research that allowed me to refine my question repeatedly and realize where my individual interests aligned.
My research this semester culminated in having the opportunity to attend a workshop that recently took place at Harvard concerning potential host vectors for Y. pestis. The workshop brought together a collection of historians, microbiologists, evolutionary biologists, and more. As a student between two disciplines, it was so encouraging to see people from such diverse backgrounds come together to add different perspectives to answer the same question. At this conference, I was also able to propose my thesis idea to multiple different specialists who all offered suggestions and support that has validated as much as refined my question. I left the workshop feeling extremely empowered about my research and energized by the ongoing work.
Throughout my senior year, I will continue this line of research to complete a senior thesis. I will do so in conjunction with the Human Evolutionary Biology department, the Department of History, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, and and the Max Planck Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM). It was thanks to the possibility of interdisciplinary work that I selected my major, and it will be these same interdisciplinary programs that culminate my undergraduate academic work.