In this third installation of Lab Notes, a brand-new column that features student and faculty research teams around campus, we’ll explore Visiting Assistant Professor Mindy Pitre’s unique work with teeth in the anthropology lab with her student research assistants.
Having taken (and loved) Professor Pitre’s class entitled “Dealing with the Dead” last semester, I’ve learned that Pitre (affectionately known to her students as Mindy) is that rare sort of professor that is at once completely relatable and incredibly knowledgeable. Spontaneous and full of energy, Mindy peppers lectures with anecdotes about brief clashes with the Amish and clips from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
Her latest project is the product of a long-standing effort to provide students with a comprehensive collection of human and animal bones to aid them in their studies or potential research. Femurs, skulls, and rib bones are all very well, but Mindy has chosen to focus her attention on procuring a commonly overlooked bone–human teeth. In a recent interview with the professor and her student team (comprised of, in alphabetical order, Maria Bernard ’12, Erika Davin ’13, Conor Peterson ’12, and Raymond Price ’13), The Hill News explores their latest and most curious project: the collection, cleaning, and cataloging of hundreds of human teeth.
The Hill News (HN): How did this project get started?
Professor Mindy Pitre (MP): Well, we’ve got a great teaching collection of bones here, which includes real human bones, casts of earlier humans, apes, and local Canton animals. There’s a whole bunch of primate material, ranging from small to gorilla-sized, and they’re great for teaching, but we don’t have any teeth! There are some pre-dental students in anthropology classes, and our department is all about experiential learning. I contacted three local dentists to see if they had any extracted teeth they were willing to give us, and they were actually pretty eager to get rid of them. They got consent sheets signed by the patients who had had those teeth extracted, and then we were all set.
HN: How did you (as students) hear about Mindy’s project?
Conor Peterson ’12 (CP): I took Bones of Contention with Mindy, and at an anthropology dinner, we started talking about her work with the teeth, and I offered to help.
Raymond Price ’13 (RP): Yes, I also took Bones of Contention, and I’m the co-President of Anthropology Club, so I heard about it early on.
Maria Bernard ’12 (MB): I took Mindy’s class Dealing with the Dead last semester, and I wanted to do some hands-on anthropology work.
Erika Davin ’13 (ED): I’m actually Mindy’s research assistant, so I was already working in the lab when I heard about it, and I get paid, so it’s great!
HN: What was your first impression of the project? It’s a little out of the ordinary.
RP: It sounded fun! I wasn’t taken back at all.
CP: I was surprised, I’ve never gotten to see teeth out of the mouth before, and it’s cool that we have them now.
ED: I remember Mindy just saying, “We’re gonna do this! New project!”
MB: I really didn’t know what to expect.
ED: The teeth are really smelly.
HN: What’s in the future for these teeth?
MP: There are only 100 of them, so right now we’re not focusing too much on research. So far we’ve identified them (ex. male or female, what kind of tooth, how many cusps and roots, etc.) and categorized them into our “specialized tooth receptacles”, also known as ice cube trays. We can get a lot of information from them about diseases that affect teeth, which would really help us learn about how to keep teeth healthy.
RP: It reminds us to brush!
MP: It also helps the students learn how time-consuming it is to make a collection, which is a big part of anthropology. You can’t really go into a store and buy teeth, you’ve got to go out and find them and categorize them all.
HN: So what’s the tooth cleaning process like?
CP: We put them in little containers and boiled them, then soaked them in hydrogen peroxide.
ED: In the fume hood!
MP: They’ve all received biosafety training through the school, and once we get a lot more teeth, we could get some research going.
HN: Does anyone have a favorite tooth?
MP: The fourth molar! Also, there’s a great tooth with wire and lead embedded in it, which came from a 19-year-old.
HN: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened in lab so far?
ED: I superglued my finger to a tooth once.
MP: You mean, you cyanoacrylated your finger to a tooth!
ED: It’s a pretty hilarious time altogether.
MP: Teeth are beautiful, but gross at the same time. You know, teeth are the part of your body that survive the longest. After most of your body is decomposed, your teeth are still going to be there.