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Alyssa Bolster

Class of 2022
Major: Anthropology and Law, History, and Society

Photo of Alyssa Bolster

When Alyssa first arrived at Vanderbilt, she had initially planned to go to Law school for Human Rights Law. This all changed when she enrolled in Associate Professor Tiffiny Tung's Anthropology course on Human Osteology. Alyssa became fascinated with the human skeleton. She was curious to learn everything she could about a skeleton’s disease load, dietary practices, dental health, and injuries. In realizing how much bioarchaeology applies to forensics, Alyssa enrolled in more Anthropology courses, including her favorite course with Dr. Tung, "Forensics, Genocide, and Human Rights." This all led to the development of her Immersion Project, which was supported with funding from the College of Arts & Science Dean’s Office and Dr. Tung’s grant from the Wenner-Green Foundation.

Alyssa's anthropological interest eventually led her to Dr. Tung's Bioarchaeology and Stable Isotope Research Lab (BSIRL) at Vanderbilt. In BSIRL, Alyssa conducts the mechanical and chemical processing of thousand-year old bone and dental samples from Peruvian archaeology sites. “Alyssa learned the human osteology extremely well; I was able to give her small skeletal fragments, and she could identify them accurately and then carry out the processing,” Dr. Tung said. Those processed samples then undergo analysis in a mass spectrometer and the resulting stable isotope data are used to assess ancient migration patterns and diet. These same analytical techniques are also used to help identify bodies of victims who are killed in violent settings or perish in natural disasters, revealing to Alyssa the strong connections between difference fields of study, such as bioarchaeology, chemistry, history, and human rights law. As she learned more about genocides in Latin America and other global regions, Alyssa became passionate about learning how to use this research to help identify unknown persons in mass graves and bring justice to victims without harming their memory.

While the last phase of her Immersion plan was to travel to Peru to do archaeological research, conduct interviews with forensic scientists and human rights workers at the Minsitry of Justice and Human Rights in Peru, and visit museums dedicated to the memory of those lost in Peru’s civil war , the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to consider alternatives. Still interested in using isotopes to identify unknown persons, Alyssa learned that by using Geographic Information System (GIS), which she studied in Dr. Wernke’s Introduction to GIS and Remote Sensing class, she could create an isoscape for Guatemala. An isoscape takes known isotope values from environmental and archaeological samples and estimates the isotope values across broad geographical areas. Given that isotopes form a crumb trail from the soil, to the plants and foods, and into the human body, researchers can use those isotope “signatures” to trace people back to their place of origin. Alyssa and Dr. Tung created a comprehensive strontium isotope database from published sources, and Dr. Tung notes, “Alyssa was such a team player and smart, dedicated researcher. I gave her my database of strontium data from archaeological specimens, and then she doubled it by going through the literatue and finding data from environmental samples. I was thrilled at the opportunity to advise her on this project.” After some complex geostatistical analysis with Dr. Wernke and the course TA, James Zimmer Dauphinae, she created a strontium isoscape for Guatemala, which can be used to start estimating the geographic origins and migration patterns of pre-Hispanic Maya peoples and those who may have been killed in Guatemala’s genocide in the 1980s. She presented this strontium isoscape as a research poster at the geospatial analysis virtual symposium, organized to present the final projects in the Introduction to GIS and Remote Sensing course by Dr. Wernke. She hopes to apply those GIS and bioarchaeological skills to other settings in Latin America, both to aid in understanding ancient human migration and solving forensic cases of missing persons.

Now a junior double majoring in Anthropology and Law, History, and Society , Alyssa continues to work in BSIRL as a paid intern, focusing on bioarchaeology, isotopes, and the need for biocultural context in forensics. Alyssa reflected on what her Immersion project means to her. Alyssa believes that Immersion's structure propelled her to learn the skills she needed to set up her own research projects and ultimately reach her goals. More than anything, Alyssa said that Immersion made her "realize all the things I'm capable of." She is proud of the process and the final project. Her advice to students who are getting started with Immersion is to find a faculty adviser not only that you love but one that can serve as a mentor and member of your professional network. It's important, too; she says, "that students shouldn't be afraid to ask the Office of Immersion Resources questions as students are not alone in this process!"

This upcoming summer, Alyssa will have another opportunity to apply her osteological and GIS knowledge by analyzing skeletons as a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Fellow. In the long-term, Alyssa plans to deepen her passion for "people of the past" by pursuing graduate school in bioarchaeology. Inspired by her mentor Dr. Tung, Alyssa hopes to one day become a professor, conduct her own research, and run her own university lab.