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Anthropology professor awarded major research grant

Woman smiling in front of desktop displaying 3D scans
Miriam Belmaker

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a $246,665 grant to Associate Professor of Anthropology Miriam Belmaker. The NSF award will further enhance the Department of Anthropology’s Surface Metrology and Imaging Lab by funding the purchase of a 3D micro laser scanner and software for digital analysis.

This lab already contains several instruments that are found in only a few other U.S. universities. The addition of the 3D micro laser scanner will help to make The University of Tulsa a national center for material sciences research, including investigations of climate change and human evolution.

What can ancient rodents’ teeth reveal about today’s changing climate?

For Belmaker, the NSF-funded technology will allow her to fashion a new approach to studying past environments based on the shape of rodents’ teeth. Because animals eat food that changes with the environment (hay-like foods during dry periods and leafier vegetation during wet ones), those foods modify the tooth surface, meaning that different shapes are created on a micro level.

3D micro laser with hippo tooth
3D micro laser and hippo tooth

Using the 3D micro laser scanner, Belmaker will be able to look at the tooth shape of modern rodents by creating digital 3D scans. “I can then correlate the tooth shape with the current climate where they live and I can see if there is a relationship between the two,” said Belmaker. “With that information in hand, I will then be able to examine fossil rodents using the same methods and, thereby, infer past climates.”

Belmaker plans to focus on three time periods in human evolution, including when early humans dispersed from Africa into Eurasia 2 million years ago, the extinction of Neanderthals and the survival of modern humans during the last glacial period (ca. 20,000 years ago). “Knowing how climate change has affected these key events in human evolution is not only important for understanding our past but also has direct implications for the current global climate crisis,” Belmaker commented. “Current climate change is having immeasurable effects on human populations worldwide. To understand how the current climate may affect us and nature around us, looking at the past is critical. This research is a step in that direction.”

Are you interested in knowing more about TU’s Surface Metrology and Imaging Lab and the new 3D micro laser scanner and software? Contact Miriam Belmaker at miriam-belmaker@utulsa.edu for all the details.