Grad Student Mari Isa Receives NSF Fellowship

Mari Isa is a graduate student analyzing skeletal trauma, and a recent recipient of an NSF fellowship. Below, she shares more about her work:


I started at MSU as an undergraduate. That fall, I took my first anthropology class, Biocultural Evolution, and began working in the Nubian Bioarchaeology Laboratory under the guidance of Dr. Todd Fenton. Needless to say, I was hooked. Six years later, I am serving as the Laboratory Manager in the MSU Forensic Anthropology Laboratory. This job allows me to work with local medical examiners and law enforcement agencies to assist in medico-legal cases. I have worked on cases involving identification of human vs. non-human material, positive radiographic identification, and trauma analysis. As lab manager I continue to learn from directors Dr. Fenton and Dr. Joe Hefner about writing case reports, analysis methods, and activities involved in running a laboratory.

My dissertation research focuses on the intersection between anthropological analysis of skeletal trauma and biomechanical experimentation. Specifically, I am interested in how intrinsic factors related to bone structure and extrinsic mechanical factors interact to produce fracture. To better understand the mechanical concepts involved in this research, I had to dust off my graphing calculator and enroll in engineering courses including Tissue Mechanics and Mechanics of Deformable Solids. I have also started to learn the basics of finite element modeling. Using a program called Abaqus, I learned to create computational models of simulated impact experiments. These models help predict the location on a skeletal element where the highest stresses—and thus fractures—are likely to occur during impact.  In 2014, I was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support my dissertation research.

As part of my research, I work on the National Institute of Justice study, “Building a Science of Cranial Fracture” (led by Dr. Fenton with Dr. Roger Haut and Dr. Feng Wei from engineering). At last year’s American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting I presented on research investigating the role of implement shape in determining cranial fracture patterns. A key result of this research was that individual variation in aspects of bone structure, such as cranial curvature, may contribute to differences in fracture patterns observed between individuals.

Outside of skeletal trauma research, I am also working on a project with recent MSU graduate Dr. Amy Michael aimed at evaluating the applicability of a standard histological method for age estimation using the rib. I have also had the opportunity to venture into bioarchaeological research. For the past two years, I have traveled to Tuscany to assist in osteological investigations of skeletal remains excavated from Late Roman cemeteries under the mentorship of Dr. Fenton, Dr. Elsa Pacciani, and Dr. Alessandro Sebastiani in association with the Alberese Archaeological Project.

When I graduate, I hope to pursue a career in higher education. I would like to have students of my own because my favorite graduate school experiences have involved teaching. One of my best experiences at MSU was teaching the osteology lab portion of Dr. Fenton and Dr. Norm Sauer’s Human Identification and Forensic Anthropology study abroad course in the United Kingdom. While at MSU, I have also enjoyed being involved in various outreach programs within the Greater Lansing community. I am a senior instructor for the museum’s Human Ancestors Program, and I volunteer with other programs such as Darwin Day at the MSU museum, OsteoCHAMPS with the College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Michigan Archaeology Day.

This article appears in our Fall 2016 newsletter. Read the entire newsletter here.