Postdoctoral Fellowship: SPRF: Anthropological Investigation of Demographic Variability in the Ancient Oral Microbiome

  • Weyrich, Laura S. (CoPI)
  • Ham, Allison C. (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


This award was provided as part of the NSF Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowships (SPRF) programs. The goal of the SPRF program is to prepare promising, early career doctoral-level scientists for scientific careers in academia, industry or private sector, and government. SPRF awards involve two years of training under the sponsorship of established scientists and encourage Postdoctoral Fellows to perform independent research. NSF seeks to promote the participation of scientists from all segments of the scientific community, including those from underrepresented groups, in its research programs and activities; the postdoctoral period is considered to be an important level of professional development in attaining this goal. Each Postdoctoral Fellow must address important scientific questions that advance their respective disciplinary fields. Under the sponsorship of Dr. Laura Weyrich at the Pennsylvania State University, this postdoctoral fellowship award supports an early career researcher investigating the effect of demographic variables (age, sex) on variation within the ancient oral microbiome to elucidate how these differences relate to health outcomes in the past. While there is a strong connection between the oral microbiome and disease in living populations, the relationship between individual variation in oral microbiota and health disparities remains unclear. Hence, this project aims to gain insight into the relationship between the human oral microbiome, health, and disease by investigating what demographic factors produce individual variation in oral microbiota. Anthropological studies on human-pathogen interactions can further our understanding of the etiology of certain diseases and how social and environmental conditions in the past helped to shape health inequities observed in living populations. Therefore, by contributing temporal information on past biological, social, and environmental factors related to health outcomes, the results of this project can help in the development of public health interventions that target health risks and exposures and can help to improve the quality of the life for groups who are disproportionately impacted by health disparities.Drawing on perspectives from anthropology, microbiology, demography, and ecology, this project studies age- and sex-specific variability in the ancient oral microbiome using paleodemographic and biomolecular analyses conducted on existing dental calculus samples from medieval and post-medieval cemeteries to achieve two primary research objectives. First, reexamine the effects of demographic factors (age and sex) on the diversity and composition of the human oral microbiome. Second, investigate how variation in microbiota diversity and composition effects sex-based health outcomes, as manifested in variation in risks of mortality, across time. To achieve these objectives a Bayesian approach to transition analysis is used to generate age point estimates for age-at-death, and genomic and proteomic procedures as well as traditional morphological skeletal traits are used to estimate sex. Oral microbiota diversity and composition are assessed using metrics of alpha- and beta-diversity, and hazards-based statistical approaches are employed to assess the effect of these metrics on survivorship. Ultimately, this project’s integration of paleodemographic and biomolecular data can shed light on the etiology of skeletal manifestations of disease and their relationship to survival; the role pathogens played in shaping past human populations; and the mechanisms involved in human-microbial interactions and the production of differential patterns of human health across time.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
Effective start/end date9/15/238/31/25


  • National Science Foundation: $160,000.00


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