14 DECEMBER 2008, PHILADELPHIA, PA—“I like the variety,” said Erika Durham CT Technologist, Department of Radiology, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “These are very different populations from what I work with during the week. And just the whole thing—helping science—that is cool.”
For about one year, Ms. Durham has been one of HUP’s CT technologists assisting scientists at the University of Pennsylvania Museum with a major, National Science Foundation funded project to cat scan the Museum’s skeletal collections of thousands of human and primate specimens, as well as collections from Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History—and, on this early Sunday morning—a collection of skulls from the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Dr. Janet Monge, Acting Curator-in-charge of Penn Museum’s Physical Anthropology collection, and P. Thomas Schoenemann, Consulting Curator and Research Associate in the section, are the principal investigators of the project, which began in 2002, and continues through 2009.
It was still dark outside, not yet 7 a.m., when the crew—Janet Monge and Tom Schoenemann, Mütter Museum curator Anna Dhody, and Mütter Museum director of communications J Nathan Bazzel, and Penn undergraduate students Samantha Cox and Jennifer Rosado—with about 30 skulls in carefully packed plastic boxes, left the Museum. The students rolled a cart with the boxes to the Silverstein main entrance of the hospital, a short block away, and on down the hallway to the Department of Radiology. At the busy hospital, Sunday mornings are the best time to gain access to the CT scan equipment routinely used for patients.
Once there, the two Penn students quickly went to work. Samantha Cox, a Penn junior, has been working on the project three years. Jennifer Rosado, a part-time student, has been involved about a year. Both are juniors, majoring in anthropology. They collaborated with Ms. Durham to set up the skulls comfortably on the CT table, and also organize the skulls on the cart. They needed to work efficiently together to scan as many skulls as possible before their morning window of time was over.
Ms. Durham is practiced at the art of scanning, including these unusual “patients,” and the work proceeded quickly: “from the time they put it on the table, to scanning, no more than five minutes,” she noted.
While she scanned, Samantha was at a laptop database, double-checking object numbers. She will integrate information about the skull that Anna Dhody of the Mütter Museum will later provide, so that researchers will have easy access to both the scan and the known information about each specimen.
The Hrytl skull collection at the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia was assembled by the renowned Austrian anatomist Joseph Hyrtl in the mid 19th century. The collection of 139 skulls, primarily from ethnic groups occupying Eastern Europe at that time, contains rare examples from various nomadic populations. It has been housed at the Mütter Museum since 1875, and has become an iconic exhibit of the Museum’s main collection. They have never been CT scanned before, and curator Anna Dhody is hoping to find new information about the collection through the project.
The data-rich three dimensional scans (a single scan can be many hundreds of megabytes) from this collection, like the 5,000 scans already complete under this grant, will be stored in an Open Research Scan Archive, on computers in the Human Brain Evolution Laboratory in the Penn Museum. Researchers may schedule an appointment to work in the Lab, or request specific scans be downloaded and mailed to them.
The Open Research Scan Archive Online includes all available research notes on each of the specimens presented, providing scholars with easy access to critical contextual information.
“The purpose of this project is to facilitate research in skeletal biology, anthropology, biology, medicine, and related disciplines,” noted Dr. Monge. “These data-rich scans provide us, for the first time, with the ability to offer open access to our important skeletal collections, thereby providing an opportunity for all interested scholars to tap in to this raw data for their own research purposes.
“Our hope is that the database will continue to grow, becoming a scientific clearinghouse for CT data of all kinds, including CT’s of fossil specimens,” she said.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at http://www.penn.museum.