CLAS Acts Dec. 2008

Justin Adams with Skeleton

bone from different angles

December 2008
Volume 2, Issue 4
Our Mission: The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a student-centered and diverse learning community that engages in critical inquiry extending knowledge to enrich and enliven individual and public life.  

CLAS College Office Monthly Newsletter for Faculty

Join Us in Welcoming... Associate Dean Mary Schutten in early May after her sabbatical.  Faculty received the detailed announcement last month. Until then, we have two very experienced colleagues to hold down the fort.   Paul Stephenson will use his years of Unit Head experience to look after student issues and  Karen Gipson will use her Curriculum Committee experience to the oversight of curricular issues.  All other issues arising in this portfolio should, during this interim period, be sent to Dean Antczak.

Have a Success Story or newsworthy item to share?  E-mail                                                                              

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences 

"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."
-John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Any assessment of this fall would have to take into account two things-extraordinary stress, and unprecedented accomplishment.  Not only was the term burdened with the anxiety of the NCA visit, but all of our usual work was carried out against a backdrop of a plummeting national economy and a hard-fought and historic election.  These retrospectives of the semester hold some truth; but "success after success" would be just as accurate a description of Fall 2008.    The university started the semester on the right foot by granting partner benefits and opening some desperately needed space.  We saw a new degree of interdepartmental cooperation in the work of Christine Chamberlain of Grants Administration, Bob Smart of the Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence, and Dean Joseph and Monica Johnstone of CLAS.  The Faculty Council and the Faculty Development Committee sponsored and ran three Out-of-the-Box Events to work on faculty-generated solutions to faculty-identified challenges.   Within departments and collectively as a College we developed our discussions of what counts for scholarship in our disciplines.  But while talking that talk, we modeled what we mean by it in so many productive ways.  We saw an unprecedented cascade of published books (congratulations to Robert Rozema, Deb Herrington, Ellen Yezierski, Kevin den Dulk, Azizur Molla, and to several others who have recently signed contracts); we were amazed by Hoon Lee's ceramics exhibit; we took pride in Deanna Morse's film taking her from Allendale to Odessa to China; we were informed and enlivened by the election commentary of colleagues including Erika King and Roger Moiles.  From Jennifer Wolter's presentation at the International 19th Century French studies Colloquium to Tonya Parker's article in the Medical Engineering and Physics, we continue to excel at various kinds of scholarship that is helping to make a national name for GVSU.    Back at home, we also provided the sort of work that helps our community and develops our relationship to it.  One need only look at examples such as Erik Nordman, who took a student to speak to the Zeeland Charter Township trustees about the evaluation of their recreational areas, AWRI holding a public meeting about the Great Lakes, or the school outreach that Danielle Wiese did to receive a Michigan Campus Compact Faculty/Staff Community Service-Learning Award. Read more about these accomplishments by logging on to the features on our Web site, or open a copy of The Forum to see the wonderful and innovative contributions your colleagues are making so consistently and so well.   With good work must come a moment of robust celebration. By all means, come join your faculty and staff colleagues at the CLAS Holiday Party on December 5 at 11:30 in the Pere Marquette Room in Kirkhof Center.  Relax, enjoy some excellent food, and take in our traditional Tannenbaum tubas and the carillon concert.   

And, if I may, I hope the party can be a moment out of the rush of the end of the semester in which we can celebrate together the distinctive opportunity we have, of working with such good people at such a good place--even, perhaps especially, at such a challenging time.  When we think back on this eventful fall, though the sky may at times have seemed dark, all semester the stars just kept coming out.   We live in a pressure-packed age of seemingly relentless planning and assessment and accreditation; even so, sometimes the most professional attitude remains the most human one.  Or as Seneca put it, nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart; in gratefulness then for the place, the people, and the semester we made together, come celebrate!  December 5 at 11:30 in the Pere Marquette Room in Kirkhof Center.  

'Tis the Season

In December the Deans will be busy before taking a well deserved break. ·        

Dean Antczak will begin Fall Arts Celebration '09 planning; effecting the temporary transition to Interim Associate Deans Paul Stephenson and Karen Gipson; doing a little traveling for Capital Campaign events: finishing his grading; and just generally shutting down the semester, like any faculty member.  ·        

Jann Joseph will be at a conference and on a short  vacation from Dec 1-5.  She will be performing general administrative duties such as liaison between COE and CLAS on issues including supporting the new elementary minor and major courses and program. ·         Gary Stark will be checking Round 1 schedule, recruiting faculty for student scholarship interviews, checking low-enrolled courses for Winter, and preparing for submission of the annual Faculty Activity Reports.

CLAS Faculty Feature

Justin Adams and the Hoogland Hominid

By Monica Johnstone, Dir. of CLAS Communications

Last summer, physical anthropologist Justin Adams of the Biomedical Sciences Department started on a new site in Hoogland on the outskirts of the South African Transvaal that looked promising from aerial photography and historical records.  In fact, this region, the Transvaal, between the Vaal River in the south and the Limpopo River in the north has the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an acknowledged "Cradle of Humankind" since early remains were discovered there in the 1920s.   Those of us who grew up on school films depicting the Leakeys brushing the loose dust away from pieces of skull at Olduvai Gorge are too easily impressed in Justin's estimation.   That's the easy stuff.    Professor Adams has worked in three different South African sites, some very remote, and recounts stories of backpacking in all of his water and food (disproportionately canned tuna) for a four week dig, and thereby dropping more pounds than he would seem to be able to spare. Tick bites, injury, no showers, cold nights, clearing brush, isolation and wielding a 20 lb. sledge hammer.  He has acquired a taste not for the loose silty soils of east African former river beds, but instead for the concrete-like breccia deposits on the floors and walls of ancient caves.    This matrix contains remains from the cave-dwelling animals and sometimes branches (or offshoots) of our own family tree. Getting at them requires a measure of brute force and some basic chemistry.  First, long holes are drilled into the breccia so that blasting caps can be pushed to the bottom of the holes.  Mats made of tire rubber limit the kick back when the caps are tapped.  The resulting cracks allow large blocks to be extricated.   Next, these blocks must be coaxed to give up there suspended material.  As Justin explains, "in caves, you know the fossils are there, but they are harder to get at."  Acetic acid, about the concentration of household vinegar, is used to dissolve the breccia.  It is not a dunk-it-and-leave-it proposition because the acid would, if left to soak, dissolve the fossils, too.  Instead, the process is closely monitored and as each fossil becomes exposed, it is treated with a liquid plastic which stabilizes the parts the researcher wants to examine.   Sifting through the rubble to glean 2156 small but useful bone fragments as well as some larger pieces is a summer's work.  To put it in perspective, out of one 2' by 2' breccia block, remnants of 53 individual animals were recovered.  Then Professor Adams hops the plane to GVSU while collaborators at the Transvaal Museum continue the processing.   "My primary job is sorting out the parts and determining what they are," Justin says.  He admits that he is "really good with shapes", a sort of morphological talent supported by his training that allows him to see recognizable forms in chipped, chewed and discolored pieces of material  that could come from a wide variety of species including some no longer with us.  Many leave their anterior teeth.  Many show signs of what happened to them prior to the find such as damage from carnivores.  Very little is conveniently whole. Welcome to taphonomy, the study of what happens between death and the time a physical anthropologist frees your bones from the breccia.  This is not the part most people like to think about, but it is important to understanding the finds.   Last summer, amidst the marmot-like Hyrax, cheetah, and antelope remains were-rare in biomass terms-three different species of primates.   One of those was a hominid bone from the mid foot.  This one was hard to match to a proper comparison sample-a key methodology in Justin's field.  This one could be, possibly, an early example of our own genus.  Additional parts would be needed to determine genus, but the remains aren't in the fossil record.   "Our fossil is probably a large jawed side branch of our tree or early hominids," Justin muses.  This seems an interesting claim as you stare at the realistic-looking cast of the tarsal on Justin's desk (South Africa has rights to the original).  And yet he makes a convincing case for what we can know from one foot bone.  Its shape tells us whether this is a biped, for instance.  It's all about the shape.   This discovery launched an e-mail more excited than the usual "what I did with my summer vacation" to the Dean, and it bodes well for future grant getting.  Justin seems equally interested in refining how we analyze the fossil record.  "We need more individuals to know what the normal variations are.  When we look at the deep time past, we have narrow windows.  We have to push boundaries to understand our own lineage," Justin explains.  "Those ancestors that no longer exist tell us about biome changes under pressure.  We look at how fast die offs happen.  Stable populations just disappear from the record.  Hyper-specialized species are just very vulnerable."   The excitement of the discovery is followed by a long period of patience while in Liverpool 35 pounds of carefully shipped rocks undergo paleomagnetics (a kind of dating technique because carbon 14 and other types just don't go back far enough).  One can't help but hope for something breathtakingly old, and the fossil does not disappoint.  In November, Justin received word: "We are considering the hominin to have been deposited between 3.0 and 2.5 million years ago - with the specimen likely from just before 2.5 million years ago."