College Recognizes PhD Student Micayla Spiros as Outstanding Researcher

Photo of Micayla Spiros

This spring, PhD student Micayla Spiros received the inaugural College of Social Science Graduate Student Research Award. This award is presented to one graduate student from the entire College of Social Science who initiates and conducts original research and demonstrates a clear potential for continued research excellence. Spiros is a graduate student in the MSU Forensic Anthropology Laboratory (MSUFAL) who studies how variation in the human skeleton can aid in the identification of unknown remains.

Spiros’s research focuses on macromorphoscopic (MMS) variation in the postcranial skeleton, which involves examining the expression of human variation in the skeleton below the skull. Spiros became interested in this research topic after identifying a gap in biological anthropology, in which researchers primarily focused on the cranium for estimating an individual’s ancestry from the skeleton. Since recognizing this disparity, Spiros has worked towards standardizing the collection protocol of postcranial variations and assessing their utility in estimating the biological profile. Spiros has presented her research at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference and published articles in Forensic Anthropology and Journal of Forensic Sciences. Spiros is now addressing the current lack of understanding behind variation in the postcranial skeleton, and the absence of postcranial data in juvenile individuals.

While MMS variations are assumed to be associated with genetic variation, the effects of ontogeny and non-biological influences have yet to be fully explored. For her dissertation research, Spiros is exploring the growth and development of postcranial variation by collecting data on individuals from diverse age, population, and socioeconomic cohorts. Using a biocultural approach, Spiros is investigating the theoretical foundations of these variations while considering developmental theory, ecogeographic history, plasticity, and human adaptability.

By better understanding the underlying factors of postcranial MMS variation, Spiros hopes that this will be useful in forensic casework involving identification of juveniles and adults and in bioarchaeological research. Spiros plans to expand her postcranial MMS database beyond the U.S. to a global scale representing worldwide variation. Through her research, Spiros is contributing to the exploration of biocultural impacts on skeletal biology and variation.

Spiros’s experiences at MSU have strengthened her expertise and skills in forensic anthropology and research. As a graduate student of the MSUFAL, Spiros regularly engages in forensic casework involving identification, trauma analysis, and recovery of human remains. Spiros has also taught the osteology lab section for the Osteology and Forensic Anthropology course, which bolstered her passion for education both within academia and the public. Spiros is grateful for the guidance from her adviser, Dr. Joseph Hefner, in encouraging her development as a researcher and instilling the importance of equity and respect in a working environment. Spiros also appreciates the continued support from one of her mentors since her Master’s program, Dr. Sherry Nakhaeizadeh, who constantly drives her to push the boundaries of science; and Dr. Jennifer Love, Forensic Anthropologist at the D.C. Office of the Medical Examiner’s Office, with whom Spiros has interned, who served as a clear example of the mutual respect between medical examiners and forensic anthropologists.

In addition to her postcranial MMS variation research, Spiros is working with Drs. Sherry Nakhaeizadeh, Tim Thompson, Ruth Morgan, and Joseph Hefner on “eye tracking” research. This work examines how practitioners visually perform osteological methods to investigate decision-making strategies of a protocol when analyzing skeletal remains. The findings from this research are important for explaining the intricacies of human variation to new students and for improving protocols in the field.

After earning her PhD, Spiros hopes to work in a medical examiner’s office aiding in forensic casework while continuing skeletal biology research.

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08.23.20