CRL 2017 Spring Office Hours

Lab Meetings: Every Thursday in HUIRB, 4th Floor Conference Room 11am-1pm.

  • Fatimah Jackson, Director: Email for appointment
  • Christopher Cross, Assistant Curator: Fridays, 10am-12pm, 4-5pm
  • Whitney Griffith, Web Master: Mondays, 1-3pm, Fridays, 1-3pm
  • Njlaa Bakhsh, Graduate Research, Thursdays, 1-6:15pm
  • Carter Clinton, Graduate Researcher, Tuesdays, 11-1pm, Thursdays, 1-3pm
  • Gretchen Johnson, Graduate Researcher, Thursdays, 1-4pm
  • Churchill Ihentuge, Graduate Researcher, Tuesdays, 9-12am, Thursdays, 1-3pm
  • Rawan Almaghrabi, Master's Researcher, Tuesdays, 10am-1pm
  • Rita Okolo, Undergraduate Researcher, Mondays, 4-5pm, Wednesdays, 4-5pm


Abstract Submissions!

Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) conference is in Austin, Texas on July 2-6th, 2017 and abstracts are due February 15th, 2017

European Society of Human Genetics (ESHG) conference is in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 27-30, 2017 and abstracts are due February 10th, 2017

**Please note that Dr. Jackson will be available tomorrow, Friday, January 27th, 2017 in the CRL from 10am to 12pm. to help. Please email to confirm your intention to attend.

CRL hosts Evolutionary Medicine Students for Skeletal Biology and Genetics Laboratory

The Cobb Research Lab hosted Evolutionary Medicine undergraduate students who were taught by Dr. Michael Campbell at Howard University. Associate Curator, Christopher Cross conducted their lab for the day using the laboratories resources on Friday October 7th, 2016.  The purpose of their visit was to examine the skeletal specimens in the lab in order to gain insight to the techniques of the lab as well as the research analysis. In addition, Mr. Cross instructed the students to complete general genetic research to conduct gene lists for several individuals in the Cobb Collection based on the individual's cause of death.

Mr. Norman Francis Donates Original Dr. W. Montague Cobb Reprints to Dr. Jackson and the CRL

The CRL recently acquired valuable original reprints   or publications from Dr. W. Montague Cobb through Mr. Norman Francis (pictured right with Dr. Jackson) who had been a student of Dr. Lafayette Frederick, a close associate of Dr. Cobb. These documents represent over 100 pages on the “physical anthropology of the Negro”, several book reviews including one book by the distinguished cell biologist and founder of epigenetics, Dr. E. E. Just. The collection included a major article published in the Journal of Negro Education that discusses the importance of establishing physical (biological) anthropology at Howard University.   These reprints have been scanned and the originals will become part of our archives stored in the CRL while the electronic copies will be broadly distributed to our Research Associate, Research Assistants, and Advisory Board members. Dr. Cobb’s insights and vision for the Cobb Research Laboratory are a foundation for our ongoing efforts at the lab. Thank you Mr. Francis! ***

Transforming the Cobb Research Laboratory into an Informal STEM Learning Resource Center

By Dr. Fatimah Jackson, Director

We are making a sincere effort to transform the CRL into an informal STEM Learning Resource Center. The rationale for this effort and our current capabilities are outlined in this article.

The Underrepresentation of African Americans in the STEM-disciplines.

The deficiency of ethnic minorities and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is a critical national concern (Hernandez et al 2013). Among women and underrepresented minorities (URMs), African Americans (AAs) disproportionately leave the STEM disciplines. While a number of underlying reasons have been proposed for this recurring and disturbing pattern, there is a paucity of data on the key obstacles to successful recruitment, retention, and sustained commitment in AA students to the STEM fields. The 6-yr degree-completion rate of undergraduate STEM majors at U.S. colleges and universities is less than 40% (Toven-Lindsey et al 2015) and AA students leave the STEM disciplines at even higher rates. Increasing the success of URMs and particularly AAs in the STEM fields translates into greater individual rewards, economic reimbursement (Museus et al 2011), societal stability, and social justice. Strategies to reverse this inequality are critically needed. Informal STEM learning opportunities can serve as an essential stopgap for some of this loss. In this regard, facilities such as the W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory (CRL) at Howard University can play a major role in reversing this trend.

The Cobb Research Laboratory.


Founded in 1931 by distinguished professor of anatomy and biological anthropology Dr. William Montague Cobb, the Cobb Research Laboratory (CRL) is an interdisciplinary research unit at Howard University. The CRL currently occupies 3000 square feet in Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall and provides offices, archives, and two laboratories housing two major collections of human skeletal, dental, and bioarchaeological materials. The CRL serves as a research magnet for students from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Dentistry, the College of Nursing, and the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. The CRL is emerging as an informal STEM learning facility offering diverse research opportunities for self-directed learning, incidental learning, and socialization, or tacit learning (see Merriam et al., 2007), three of the four major forms of informal STEM learning. The CRL also serves as an important community outreach site for public access to science.

Research Collections of the CRL.

The two major collections housed at the CRL are the New York African Burial Ground remains and the Cobb Collection, representing 400 years of African American biological history. Our 17th and 18th century samples are derived from the New York African Burial Ground (NYABG) remains currently housed at Howard University and on loan from the National Park Service. The NYABG is the nation’s earliest and largest African burial ground (LaRoche and Blakey, 1997). These previously buried samples reflect African/African American biological diversity from the late 17th to late 18th centuries in New Amsterdam/New York. While there are over 400 burials, we have well-documented, archived biological remnants from 250 individuals. Our 19th and 20th century samples come from the Cobb Collection (CC). The CC contains 699 individuals from the mid to late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. It the nation’s third largest collection of human skeletal remains and is the largest containing a majority of African American individuals (83%).

Scientific and Educational Value of Collections.

Combined, the NYABG and the CC represent 400 years or approximately 20 generations of African and African American biological history. This timeframe has been understudied in the academy yet holds the key to providing evidence for key processes in human evolutionary biology (e.g., evidence of past selective sweeps, changes in mutation rates, evidence of gene flow [admixture], and opportunities for genetic drift). These collections also serve as major inspiration for the students who have affiliated themselves with the CRL. This unique collection is highly relevant (both socially and biologically) for many of our recruited students and access to these materials for study serves as a stimulus for student engagement in STEM-affiliated disciplines.

Past Student Recruitment Efforts and Activities.

Based largely on the research appeal of our collections, the CRL has recruited over 100 undergraduate and graduate students to study various aspects of either the NYABG or the CC since August 2013. All of these students were URMs and 97% of these students were ethnically African American. Their academic majors have included biology, chemistry, history, sociology, anthropology, English, and computer sciences. Since August 2014, the Cobb Research Laboratory has mentored 87 undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and post-bacs and provided professional research opportunities for over a half-dozen faculty members from diverse colleges at Howard University as well as from external institutions. Additionally, for the second year in a row, we have hosted the research component of the SMDEP program.

Current Goals and Working Hypotheses.

With this record of accomplishment in mind, we would like to now take the CRL the next level to become an Informal STEM Learning Resource Center. This effort entails the following goals and working hypotheses:

  1. Increase Recruitment and Retention. We aim to double our recruitment and retention of underrepresented ethnic minority students to STEM-related investigations at the Cobb Research Laboratory. As in the past, this will be done using the lab’s unique collection of four centuries of African American biology and history as a sustainable enticement to student interest and participation and our interdisciplinary approach to the study of these materials. We will also use our connections in social media to attract additional students from a broad cross-section of disciplines. Our working hypothesis is that: Successful commitment to STEM is enhanced by accentuating the cultural and historical ties of students to the research materials.
  2. Develop a culturally supportive climate. We know from past experience that student retention and knowledge transfer is facilitated in a reinforcing and nurturing environment, particularly one in which their innate talents are recognized, rewarded, and encouraged (see Leslie et al 2015). We seek to maintain an informal STEM learning setting that promotes student investment in the conceptualization and implementation of research-associated activities, including data generation and analysis, hypothesis testing, interpretation, presentation, and publication of research results, peer-mentorship, and self-refection on their role as an emerging research scientist. The rationale for this goal is our working hypothesis that: A proactive environment free of prejudice and discrimination promotes student investment in STEM learning.
  3. Develop diverse pathways for student engagement in STEM. When students have research options, student commitment to the STEM disciplines is strengthened. We want to expand the research opportunities currently available at CRL to include aDNA analysis, 3D and X-ray imaging, SQL database, oral microbiome evaluations, and facial reconstruction. This strategy will enhance increase the chances of finding a “good fit” between the student researchers and a specific research project. Our working hypothesis is that: Providing multiple opportunities for student engagement in STEM research topics optimizes student interest and commitment in STEM learning.
  4. Define measurable assessments at critical junctures. We want to provide multiyear quantitative and qualitative assessments of student engagement in informal STEM learning at the CRL for comparative evaluations. This will allow us to determine which steps in our Schedule of Student Activities  are most effective and why.****

CRL Research Assistants and Research Associates make broad use of the CRL facilities


Both training and research currently occur at the CRL. In terms of training (of professionals and students): In 2013,33 students and 2 faculty members and in 2014 87 students and 8 faculty members have used the CRL facilities. Faculty researchers working in collaboration with students have included Dr. Carlina De la Cova, Dr. Antonio De la Cova (University of South Carolina), Dr. Georgia Dunston (Howard University), Dr. Kathy Marshall (Howard University), Dr. Rachel Watkins (American University), Dr. Shomarka Keita (American University), Dr. Joseph Jones (William and Mary University), and Dr. John Harvey (Meharry Medical). Collaborative faculty-student presentations have included 19 presentations on such diverse research topics as: 

  • Mental Health Phenotypes and their underlying Genetics in African Americans using an in silico approach. (C. Cross et al.)
  • Prevalence and anatomical evidence of Treponema Infection in the Cobb Collection. (N. Guthrie)
  • Research Priorities and Direction for the Cobb Research Laboratory.(F. Jackson)
  • Arthritis in the Cobb Collection. (R. Bruce)  Autism in the Cobb Collection. (J. Harvey)  Effects of Different Environmental Storage Conditions on aDNA Degradation: Implications for aDNA extraction from the Cobb Collection. (J. Heard et al.)
  • mtDNA variation in African Americans across four centuries. (B. Johnson)
  • Osteological Markers of Advanced Pulmonary Tuberculosis in the Cobb Collection. (A. Libutsi)
  • Comparative lower limb anatomy in the Cobb collection among contemporary age and sex-matched individuals. (E. Mayes and A. Pryce)
  • Hypertension genotypes in an historic African American population: Comparisons with contemporary hypertension genomics. (B. Wilson and L. Jackson).

The current cohort of CRL research assistants and research associates are actively engaged in preparing abstracts, oral, and poster presentations for the upcoming Howard University Research Week 2016. As they become available, we will publish them online and in the CRL News.***

Revitalized Website, Publications, and Workshops from the Cobb Research Lab

By Nicholas Guthrie

The CRL maintains an active, regularly updated website, CRL Website traffic since November 2014 has been notable. Over the past year our readership has grown 3 fold to an all-time audience size of 1568 unique users. We average 187 visits per month from 130 average users per month. Over 50% of our web traffic in October originates from a Google search, while over 25% of users are navigating directly to the site. The final 25% of traffic can be attributed to Social Media, comprising promotional email, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and LinkedIn. These numbers are typical for a month where the CRL News is released. Over the past year, the userbase for our website has originated from 72 countries with the largest hits coming from the USA, Thailand, UK, Netherlands, Canada, India, Kenya, and South Africa. This metric does not include automated hits, because our analytics platform screens for bots and crawlers.

We publish a quarterly newsletter, the Cobb Research Lab News with an international email and hardcopy distribution of over 2000. The email campaign statistics for the Fall 2015 CRL News were taken 10 days after delivery, giving a sample ranging from Oct 15 to Oct 26, 2015. The Fall 2015 CRL News was delivered to 1231 addresses, and has been opened by 22% of those inboxed, and the items inside the email were clicked by 4% of the total cohort sent. These stats are promising; as MailChimp's Industry averages for those in Education are a 14% open average and 2% click average.

We also publish a biannual online journal, The Backbone ( In our first issue (Spring 2015) of The Backbone, we published 8 articles and 11 abstracts from a national group of faculty and student authors. CRL has also developed mini-workshops on genetics, basic anatomy, scientific ethics, research methods, and basic statistics for student researchers. ***

Schedule of Student Activities at the CRL becomes systematized

We have developed a well-defined activity schedule for newly recruited students that provides them with a solid orientation to the CRL, introduces them to the research opportunities available, and encourages them to join teams of fellow researchers, led by a peer-mentor. Recently we have systematized this schedule: Initially joining the CRL, completing a research project, writing their results, presenting at both professional and public forums, and receiving a certificate for their informal STEM learning experience. This sequence is consistent with the interventions recommended by the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program at UMBC (Maton et al 2009) .****

CRL Outreaches to K-12 to promote STEM disciplines

Post-bac Research Associate J’Aron Heard, pictured in the center, guides middle school students through an exercise on DNA .

Post-bac Research Associate J’Aron Heard, pictured in the center, guides middle school students through an exercise on DNA .

One of the most important missions of the CRL is to promote STEM careers through all ages. After engaging with our lab, we prepare young researchers to become esthetic about research. J'Aron Heard, (pictured below) a recent graduate of the Howard University Biology Department, has returned home to Louisville, KY to speak with 7th and 8th graders at Western Middle School, about connecting music and science. In this demonstration, he was able to encourage art magnet students to engage in singing, dancing, and even extracting DNA! The presentation covered lab protocol, interdisciplinary research, funding college, applying to college, the importance of higher education, creating a research project, and how to create a career in art and science. Through our work in the CRL, we hold the key to the past, and the future.  ***

Cobb's Corner: Research Assistant Sierra Williams

Cobb’s Corner is a reoccurring feature of the CRL Newsletter featuring a brief interview about the lab experience of a current researcher. In addition to learning more about their research, we learn how Dr. Cobb’s vision and mission is carried on through our efforts in the CRL today.


Our researcher is Ms. Sierra Williams, who graduated in May 2015 from Howard University with a B.S. in Sports Medicine,  Originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ms. Williams was interviewed by Nicholas Guthrie, a two year veteran of the CRL.

Nicholas Guthrie (NG): So how did you hear about the CRL?

Sierra Williams (SW): My friend Alexis Payne is also a research assistant at the CRL. She told me about the amazing work that you guys were doing at the lab and she invited me to check it out. I started working on the CRL in June and spent most of my summer doing research there.

NG: I know that some of the records on our patients are very scarce.  Did you findthat aspect difficult?

SW: At first it was a little difficult! We have some records here on most of the patients and following their research, we went to the Moorland-Springnard Research Center where they had boxes ofDr. Cobb’s records and documents that we were able to look through.

NG: I know how expansive the amount of material that the library housed relating to Dr. Cobb (because I was with you on the first trip over!), but can you share with us how much there was and the types of information housed?

SW: There were over 70 boxes, so it took a while on to go through them all. I only had the opportunity go through around 10 of them, and the topics ranged from Dr. Cobb’s involvement with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to his membership with Omega Phi Phi Fraternity Incorporated. Additionally, there were anatomical board cadaver documents from various hospitals. He also had correspondence from the NAACP, as he was the president at the time. There are also personal documents photos and publications in the collection.

NG: This sounds like a good segue into your work here at the CRL! Can you tell me about that?

SW:  When I started working on the lab, I got the opportunity to work with Dr. Carolina and Antonio De la Cova from the University of South Carolina. They were conducting research on African Americans in the Cobb Collection and looking at trauma and disease and the bones. I was able to learn a lot about how these traumas were analyzed and reported

NG: Wow this sounds like a lot of useful information! How do you think it is going to be utilized back in the lab?

SW: All the information being gathered is going to give us a better understanding of who Dr. Cobb was as a professional and individual. It will also help us with funding, as we can use some of the information to fuel our grant proposals and support solicitation. The information that we find specifically on the Cobb Collection will tell us more about the individuals in the collection.

NG: How does working with the CRL align with your future goals? I don't see very many sports medicine graduates inbioanthropology labs!

SW: I have always had an interest in anthropology and, since I was a kid, I used to go to the anthropology museums and archaeology camps at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. I've always wanted to be in the medical field, so this was a great opportunity to get research experience along with something that aligned with my career path. Working with the CC each day and looking at all of the different pathologies has allowed me to get a better understanding of some diseases and how they manifest in bone.

NG: That sounds really interesting! Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

SW: Thank you very much, Nick! ****

If these bones could talk…

By Dr. Carlina De la Cova, University of South Carolina

Left to Right: Cameron Clarke, Dr. Fatimah Jackson, Dr. Carlina De la Cova, Jessie Tompkins

The human skeleton can tell us much about a person’s past. Whilst serving as the framework of our bodies, the skeleton also records important events in our life histories, including periods of poor health, disease, and malnutrition. Understanding how to read these events, and the subsequent pathologies they produce in human bones, allows us to better comprehend health and the relationship between health, race, and social status. As a skeletal biologist and paleopathologist, my work does this. Since 2006, my research program has focused on skeletal health disparities amongst African Americans and Euro-Americans who were born during the Antebellum, Civil War (1861-1865), and Reconstruction (1866-1877) eras and lived into the early 20th century to determine the impact enslavement, liberation, industrialization, migration, and urbanization had on African American salubrity.  This summer myself (University of South Carolina) and my research team, comprised of Dr. Antonio de la Cova (University of South Carolina) and Jessica Tompkins, MA (Indiana University, Bloomington) spent the month of June and most of July studying the impact of these events on individuals in the William Montague Cobb Anatomical Collection. 

The Cobb Collection was started by Dr. William Montague Cobb in 1932 and originally included the skeletal remains of 978 mostly unclaimed African American individuals that died in public hospitals, almshouses, charity clinics, and mental institutions in Washington, D.C., between 1932 and 1969. The Cobb Collection is the first, and only anatomical collection, established by an African American scientist for the purpose of researching the Black past and refuting the popular and controversial scientific beliefs about African Americans during Dr. Cobb’s lifetime. 

My research with the collection began in 2006, when I examined 90 males. For this return visit, 72 females were analyzed. Numerous pathologies were observed. Some individuals had broken bones and evidence of poorly healed fractures that had not been properly set. One person also had a fracture that got infected but later healed, as evidenced by osteomyelitis. Many women had benign hyperostosis frontalis internal, or thickening of the interior skull. There were also infectious diseases present, including tuberculosis and tertiary syphilis. Tuberculosis was so severe in some persons that the disease destroyed part of the spinal column and resulted in severe spinal deformities consistent with Pott’s Disease. Individuals with syphilis had limb disfigurements associated with expansion of the lower leg bones. Padget’s disease, a metabolic disorder, was also present and resulted in thickening and expansion of the facial, limb, and hip bones. One individual died from uterine cancer, which had metastasized to the pelvis and vertebrae. Septic, osteo, and rheumatoid arthritis were also observed. Perhaps most telling were bowed bone malformations associated with childhood rickets or vitamin D deficiency.

The disorders and diseases present suggest that the individuals in the Cobb Collection lived challenging lives. Examination of census and morgue records indicated that most were from Blue Plains, or the Home for the Aged and Infirm, a long-term care facility for the indigent elderly. Most of the individuals studied died impoverished and thus truly represent the poorest denizens of the District at the time period, as other researchers have pointed out. Improperly healed fractures suggest accidental injuries or evidence or interpersonal violence. That these broken bones were not properly set implies limited access to health care or a cultural mistrust of doctors. The presence of healed rickets indicates poor childhood nutrition, which may have been the result of the stresses associated with enslavement or Reconstruction. 

The infections and communicable diseases observed illustrate the impact of an urban environment, especially for those marginalized to poor housing with limited access to health care. It is interesting to note that African Americans in the present day still suffer from higher rates of tuberculosis when compared to their white counterparts. The Cobb Collection has the potential to shed further light on this persistent health disparity.    

    Historical research is being performed on each individual examined in this study so that more can be learned about the Cobb Collection, who the people were that comprise it, and the impact the collection, and the people within it, will have in better understanding the Black past through the lens of health, social marginalization, and biology. ****


Skeletal Disease in the Cobb Collection

By Christopher Cross      

  The Cobb Research Laboratory (CRL) is a treasure chest full of secrets waiting to be discovered. With over 600 individuals' skeletal remains that have never been buried, essentially we have a small township of human capital in our possession.  Due to the unique nature of the collection it is irreplaceable and we are optimizing safe techniques and lobbying for new storage and lab facilities to preserve its integrity and longevity. The CRL is an example of using the past to not only predict the future but also change the present. Using next generation scientific techniques and interdisciplinary collaborations internally, domestically, and internationally we are contributing novel information on African Americans and their health disparities using these unique remains. The model we are establishing will help create a new path for science that is translational and clinically relevant. Currently, we have ongoing studies linking the anatomical abnormalities/signatures from trauma, syphilis, tuberculosis, Paget's disease, to periodontal disease just to name a few. There is so much information contained in these skeletons. We have the rare capability to further investigate  the causation and development of these individuals' skeletal disease using their own clinical records. If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, please take note of the depictions presented on this page to the right. We hope they are research-inspiring! **** 


PHOTOS: Damaged femur head. Inside of cranium stained by hemoglobin.Skull of an 81 year old woman with advanced osteological disease. Various long bones with rickets. Male skull.   Skull missing upper crania.



CRL Grows to 40 Active Members — A NEW HIGH!

By Nicholas Guthrie

This September, Nicholas Guthrie and the Cobb Lab team conducted a very successful round of recruiting to the CRL. After placing targeted flyers around campus, students and faculty responded to the call. In the Biology, Chemistry, and Physics buildings, flyers which targeted future STEM professionals garnered traction for the CRL’s research committees relating to Infectious Diseases, Chronic Diseases, Mental Disorders, Dentistry, and Genomics. In Locke and Douglass Halls, advertisements targeting writers and historians were so successful that the CRL created a brand new Social Science research committee. Flyers posted in Childers Hall peaked interest from fine art faculty and students to use the Cobb Collection as a subject for many different works across the department. After weeks of orientations, paperwork, and CITI certifications (a requirement for all CRL members), the core team at the lab grew from a dozen to over 40 researchers, spanning undergraduate, graduate and outside affiliates. The buzz around the CRL is high and we hope to see great outcomes from our new, larger research unit! ****


Who is She?

By Keely Clinton

    In late August of this year the W. Montague Cobb Research Lab received a letter of great significance from a man inquiring about one of the individuals in the New York African Burial Ground. The individual was a woman, age unknown, was compared to our modern day Sandra Bland by the mode in which she was murdered. She was described to have been laid to rest with a musket ball embedded in her shoulder blade and forearm twisted out of joint. With this information and a peaked interested in this woman I embarked on a literary journey to find her. Because there are no names associated with the archaeological archives I searched burial by burial looking for an individual fitting this description. It was only on the eve of the deadline of this article that I came across Burial No.25, I found her!

Just as was described in the letter she was buried with a lead musket ball lodged beneath her fourth rib with an oblique fracture of her lower right arm that had been caused by twisting. In addition to these lesions she had a large hole at the center of her left scapula more than likely the entry point of the bullet along with bone fractures to the face suggesting blunt-force trauma occurred. Our mystery woman was approximately 20- 24 years old when she died more than likely from the injuries ensued. Unfortunately, evidence states she survived a few days after the attack, presumably in tormenting agony. What the evidence doesn’t tell us is WHY she was murdered. It is well known that slaves were not killed very often since they were seen as property and no slave owner wanted to lose a profit. So was this woman the Rosa Parks of her day? Was she standing up for something? Or was she the subject of a brutal beating without just cause just as our sister Sandra Bland?

We know that this woman endured ongoing physical labor, as was the principal purpose of slaves in New York. This is proven by the scarring shown on each ulna (one of the lower arm bones) very common in the skeletal remains of slaves suggesting habitual activity using these muscles. An interesting fact about this this burial is that it lies directly above Burial No.32, a man 50-60 years of age, allowing one to conclude the interment of this body was purposely placed with the other. Excavation notes the distance between the two individuals is only 0.12’ in elevation. Curiosity leads me to the next piece of the puzzle, who was HE?! Why did they share a grave? Did they die for the same reasons/ causes? What can the DNA of the grave soil tell us that archaeological records cannot?

Hopefully more research will lead us to answers, but until then we should bask in the essence of the known. We found HER and are looking to multiply the numbers of identified individuals of the NYABG. As reportedly mentioned by Bernard L. Richardson, dean of the chapel at Howard University, “Even though we can’t call their names, we know them. We give thanks for the opportunity to connect with our past and our future. Oh God, you have made these bones live again [New York Historical Society].” ****


Recent visit to the University of Copenhagen yields insights on ancient genomic analysis methods

By Dr. Fatimah L.C. Jackson

coppenhagen cleanroom.png

 During the last week of September, a team of researchers from Howard University spent four days visiting the Centre for Geo-Genetics at the University of Copenhagen’s National Museum of Natural History.  On the team were Drs. Michael Campbell, Latifa Jackson, and Fatimah Jackson, all of Howard University. 
          This Centre is a world-class multidisciplinary center of excellence in ancient DNA research. Their facilities were opened in 2012. and they were built to comply or surpass the stringent requirements for working with ancient DNA. The labs are separated into several smaller rooms to facilitate cleaning and to allow several people to work at once. The Howard University team had several objectives for visiting colleagues at the Centre but foremost among these was to try to replicate the Centre’s methods of ancient DNA extraction, library development, and sequencing and bring this technology to Howard University. 
          At the Centre there is a strict isolation of all work related to human DNA. In this area pictured, there are two separate extraction rooms with laminar airflow benches and two small PCR setup rooms form the core. Separate from these a similar setup exists for working with non-human material, mainly other mammals, soil and ice. At Howard University we are not only working on ancient DNA derived from human bone and teeth but from grave soil as well. Each of these labs at the Centre have a special room where researchers must put on full body suits and other protective clothing required prior to extracting the ancient DNA . A positive air-pressure gradient is applied with highest pressure in the extraction rooms. The Centre also hosts a suite of laboratories in which modern DNA can be extracted, and where DNA can be analyzed post-PCR. Their laboratories also contain standard molecular biology equipment for the sequencing of these ancient materials. We hope to replicate these facilities here at Howard University so that we can become one of the few institutions in the United States and the only HBCU with the capacity to reveal our ancestors’ genetic history and biology.  ****


CRL team extracts ancient DNA from individual who died 85 years ago.

By Dr. Latifa Jackson

   Over the past year, the Howard University W. Montague Cobb Research Lab (CRL) has been developing protocols and collaborations to analyze the ancient DNA present in the skeletal remains from those individuals in the collection. The collection contains individuals who were born between 1860 and 1959, with 699 individuals available for possible analysis. Our desire to attain sequence data for these individuals will help to increase our understandings of the genetics of individuals living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We began our work by forming a collaboration with the Centre for GeoGenetic  at the University of Copenhagen. From this collaboration we learned their protocols in extracting ancient DNA and ways to address possible methodological issues associated with trying to capture human ancient DNA. While they worked on a subset of samples from another ancient DNA collection, the CRL took these technologies back to Howard University to run a pilot study to determine the ancient DNA yield in a sample individual (CC672) from the CRL collection. This individual lived 85 years ago. In order to have maximum preservation of the collection, we chose to extract DNA from the upper molars which were still imbedded in the skull. These were carefully removed, scraped and the remnants of tissue structures were scraped off. We used phenol chloroform, Qiagen and Oragene extraction methods. Quantification of the samples showed DNA was present in all of these methods; however the phenol chloroform delivered the highest DNA concentrations and will be the methodology used in the future to extract DNA from the skeletal collection. We are currently studying methods available to increase the capture of human specific DNA in these samples since the DNA was shown to still be quite degraded. DNA degradation is a common result of long term DNA presence. We will continue to work to bring ancient DNA sequencing to the CRL samples in order to gain insights into their genetics and associated genetic disease phenotype predispositions. We are excited by our preliminary findings and hope to start DNA extractions of these unique historical skeletal resources at Howard University. ****


SMDEP scholars participate in Cobb Research Lab Summer Research Program

By Nicholas Guthrie


During their final three of their six week intensive program, 56 scholars from Howard University's Summer Medical Dental Education Program (SMDEP) were able to conduct novel research on the Cobb Collection. SMDEP provides pre-dental and premedicine scholars with academic enrichment in the basic sciences and math, clinical experiences, career development activities, learning and study skills seminars, and a financial planning workshop. Unique to the Howard site, the HU SMDEP cohort conducted case studies on a selection of Cobb Collection individuals. Given only scarce details (possibly birthdate, death date, cause of death, name, and address), the scholars worked in pairs of two to provide a history and background of their CC individual. The final 2000 word essays contained colorful descriptions of the CC individual with details about their life story, migration patterns, standard of living, and neighborhood history. The scholars had to search public databases such as, and the National Archives to find information on their CC individual.  Furthermore, the scholars gave a detailed description of the cause of death of their CC individual, hypothesizing how the death occurred, why treatment may have failed, or if treatment was even available at the time. The Cobb Lab staff served as peer-mentors to each group, providing insights and wisdom throughout the process. At the end of their time with the CRL, each scholar was presented with a certificate of meritorious research, and each essay will be reviewed for publication. ***

The Cobb Research Lab would like to especially thank Dr. Donna Grant-Mills (CRL– Advisory Board) for coordinating this effort in such a short period of time and Ms. Andrea Clark (CRL-Volunteer) for her unwavering commitment to ensuring the success of this project.  



DNA extracted from Cobb Collection individual for first time!

By Christopher Cross


This summer has been paramount with promising results. Using the dental cementum (see article on page two), we have performed successful extraction of DNA from the Cobb Collection! This accomplishment cannot be understated as it has strong potential to lead to ground breaking discoveries. The experimental design was developed by Dr. Latifa Jackson, (NHGC Post-Doc and CRL affiliate) and implemented collaboratively by Christopher Cross (CRL Assistant Curator), and Dr. Muneer Abbas (NHGC). Three different assays were conducted and all yielded detectable amounts DNA (via NanoDrop). We are in the process of optimizing our technique in order to stream line our efforts. This was such a collaborative achievement and we are so thankful to Dr. Dunston (Founding Director of NHGC and CRL Advisory Board member), Dr. Latifa Jackson, and Dr. Muneer Abbas for lending their facility and expertise in this pioneering endeavor.

Pictured: Dr. Latifa Jackson and Mr.  Christopher Cross extract DNA from a the teeth of an individual of the Cobb Collection who died 85 years ago. Mr. Nicholas Guthrie and Dr. Brad Wilson are in the background. 

What Could You Do With 400 Years of African American Biological History? The Construction of the 4Cs Database

By Cameron Clarke

This summer, as part of an effort to integrate big data statistical analysis into productive, useful, and socially conscious research projects, the W. Montague Cobb Laboratory has begun parsing some of the collections under its curation and integrating the information into an interactive research database. This project takes a new perspective in biological-historical research. By combining centuries of African and African-American biological and historical information, the Cobb Lab gives researchers access to a functional perspective of African-American biological history over multiple generations, instead of the single, narrowly focused studies that are usually conducted. This increased breadth and scope of subject data has numerous potential applications, such as isolation of health disparities, disease susceptibility, microevolution studies, and ancestral DNA analysis. The creation of the database itself required the digitization and organization of the historical records and autopsy reports of more than a thousand individuals, from two major collections: The New York African Burial Ground Collection (NYABG) and the Cobb Collection (CC) The New York African Burial Ground Collection is a collection of samples from the nation’s largest and earliest burial ground for Africans and African-Americans. Established at some time in the late 17th century, it contains human skeletal remains from AfricanAmericans from the late 17th to the late 18th centuries. The more than 400 individuals unearthed and housed in the collection represents a cross-section of the more than 15,000 individuals that were buried there. The database will contain information about these individuals ranging from age, gender, and temporal group, to skeletal biology, oral microbiome, and ancestry reports. The Cobb Collection is W. Montague Cobb’s own conception. With nearly 1000 individuals from the 19th and 20th century, and with detailed laboratory records on each individual, the Cobb Collection is one of the nation’s largest collections of human skeletal remains, the largest and most extensive collection containing a majority of African-American samples. With these two collections, the interactive database will give researchers access to historical, sociological, and biological information from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, allowing the construction of epidemiological narratives spanning nearly 20 generations. This focus on the potential to analyze four centuries of data is the project’s namesake: 4Cs. The project was conceived by Dr. Fatimah Jackson, the director of the W Montague Cobb Research Lab, and the database is being assembled by Cameron Clarke, an undergraduate student, and double major in Biology and Community Health. The database should be complete by the Fall 2015.. ***