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Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008

Scientist at Work: Frederika Kaestle

It isn't every day that a scientist's research involves close quarters with hunters, bison and Siberian tigers. That is, unless the scientist is Frederika Kaestle, an assistant professor in bioanthropology at Indiana University. Luckily for Kaestle, the potentially dangerous people and animals have been dead for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Well, except the Siberian tiger.

"I was doing field research in the middle of the Siberian wilderness when the cook pointed out a set of giant footprints recently made by a Siberian tiger, which is rare and exciting," recalls Kaestle. "They warned me to tie my tent shut to keep it out if it returned, and I couldn't help but wonder all night if some strings tied in a bow would keep out a hungry Siberian tiger!"


Photo by: Jacob Kriese

Frederika Kaestle's research as a bioanthropologist has taken her from Siberia to Panama to study DNA from subjects ranging from a 7,000-year-old man to historical strains of tuberculosis.

Print-Quality Photo

Although much of Kaestle's research is exciting, it isn't usually dangerous. As a bioanthropologist, Kaestle studies the course of human evolution and modern variances in primate genetics through DNA. In Siberia, she was studying DNA from ancient humans in an attempt to trace their migration to North America, when the continent was first populated thousands of years ago.

But her research also hits close to home. Kaestle has studied the evolution of tuberculosis in North America, the prehistory of Native American cultures in the Midwest and the 9,000-year-old remains of a prehistoric man found near Kennewick, Wash., known as the "Kennewick Man."

"My real passion is answering questions like, 'When we look through time and see dramatic cultural change in a local people, was it because the existing culture slowly transformed, or because a new people moved and mixed in, or replaced them?'" says Kaestle. "It's a hard question to answer, and the only way to do it is through DNA."

Studying ancient DNA is no easy task, but Kaestle has contributed many methods and ideas to the practice. Over time, DNA -- organic material -- is destroyed through fossilization and other natural processes. As proven by Kaestle's research, DNA can also be harmed throughuse of X-rays, which is a common practice in archeology. Realizing that samples should be taken before they are X-rayed is just one example of the progress the field has made since its conception in the 1980's.

The process takes very specialized equipment. Researchers dressed in white, disposable "bunny suits" work in a specially sealed lab where the air is continually filtered with a positive pressure, so when doors open, air goes out instead of in. The equipment must be constantly bleached so the scientists' DNA doesn't contaminate the samples, which can happen from the slightest breath or brush of skin, and inevitably happens from time to time.

In fact, Indiana University's Ancient DNA Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology -- of which Kaestle is the director -- is one of less than a dozen such facilities run by universities in the United States. And with strong collaborations between the different anthropology subfields -- including social-cultural, biological, linguistic and archeology -- Kaestle can better answer her questions at IU then most anywhere else.

"Ever since I was 13 and saw a slide show from family friends at Thanksgiving doing field research in Germany, I've known I wanted to be an anthropologist," said Kaestle. "That's when I realized you could study people and get paid to do it. I love what I do here at IU, and hope to be here for a long time to come."