Bone to pick: Student works with 100-year-old samples from the Smithsonian

By Tobi Thompson, The Daily Orange

Soleil Young - studentFor Soleil Young, a senior biology and anthropology major, physical appearance, general interests and academia all seamlessly blend into each other.

She is an intersection of fashion, biology, activism and anthropology. She wears thick, black-framed pointy glasses, a septum ring, a beanie and a denim dress donned with a large Remembrance Scholar pin.

“She has a real talent for crossing boundaries and disciplines,” said Shannon Novak, an associate professor of anthropology at Syracuse University. “She clearly comes at topics from a very diverse — humanistic, scientific and activist — background. It’s really impressive.”

Young’s latest scientific efforts are rather niche. For her anthropology honors thesis, she scrapes bone dental calculus — a form of hardened dental plaque — to extract DNA for research and signs of tuberculosis. Her samples come from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

She hopes to finish molecular study of the calculus by the end of November and then wants to focus on the historical and social context behind it throughout the rest of the year.

Novak, who helped Young with her proposal for the Smithsonian, said Young has been in all of her classes and has always had an interesting take on a topic that others may not bring up.

Over the summer, Young received seven samples from the Smithsonian to run a pilot test of TB in dental calculus, which is the mineralized plaque from calcium phosphate. The process traps DNA and adheres to the teeth, so calculus cannot be removed by brushing.

When Young finished her pilot study with the seven samples, she wrote her proposal to the Smithsonian, and it was approved.

“It was really scary in the beginning because I had no idea if it was going to work or not,” Young said. “I kind of convinced myself it wasn’t going to work. There’s a lot of factors when you’re just working with regular samples that are problematic, but when you’re working with ancient DNA, it’s like a lot of unknowns.”

She knew there has been a lot of work in using dental calculus for research. There have also been a lot of procedures in finding tuberculosis in DNA, but Young decided to try combining the two methods into this new one for her honors thesis.

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