APPLYING NEXT GENERATION SCIENCE STANDARDS IN THE COBB RESEARCH LABORATORY
The Cobb Research Laboratory houses two important collections, the W. Montague Cobb Collection and the New York African Burial Ground. Taken together, we have representative bioskeletal and soil samples on African Americans from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. Traditionally, the study of these materials have been limited to the fields of biological anthropology and bioarchaeology; however, scientific breakthroughs in molecular biology, genetics and bioinformatics will allow us to advance these collections and apply next generation science for evidence-based historically contextualized studies. Therefore we plan to utilize computational biology and bioinformatic approaches, in addition to developing highly nuanced databases for the Cobb Research Laboratory. These advancements will promote novel findings and new science standards for future studies of other human skeletal collections.
The W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory is a unique and priceless resource for research on the human skeletal and bioarchaeological collections housed therein. The two most important collections of the Cobb Research Laboratory are the Cobb Collection and the New York African Burial Ground. The Cobb Collection is named after the first African American biological anthropologist and renowned Chair of Howard University’s Anatomy Department. It is a hand curated sample of approximately 699 de-fleshed human cadavers that were donated and collected for scientific purposes during World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and the American Civil Rights movement from 1932-1969. The Cobb Collection is unique in that it is the only skeletal collection residing at a historically black college/ university (HBCU). This skeletal collection is the least researched of the three major U.S. collections and lends itself to novel insights about the lives and deaths of Americans living in the Washington, D.C. area. As such, Howard University is uniquely positioned to address large scale skeletal biological research on African Americans from the late 19th to mid 20th Century. Approximately 83% of the Cobb Collection is African American and contains records with significant clinical and autopsy data including age, sex, place of death, cause(s) of death, and morbidity.
The New York African Burial Ground Collection at the Cobb Research Lab consists of soil and bioskeletal samples from the New York African Burial Ground Project. This project unearthed 419 skeletons and related artifacts from a previously unknown and unmarked grave site in Manhattan, NY in 1991. Bioarchaelogists confirmed that these individuals were in fact enslaved Africans and African Americans from the 17th and 18th century. This discovery was deemed significant, so much so that the burial site has been commemorated as a National Monument and protected by the United States National Park Service.
Currently we are conducting and soliciting research on the collections in the Cobb Research Laboratory that broadly address important STEM science issues, particularly regarding selection and adaptation, genomic and epigenomic changes with respect to the historical environments, clustering of disease genes in individuals dying from specific chronic disorders, and evidence for health disparities 75 years ago. Most notably, we are hoping to extract ancient DNA from specific subsets of the collection to address hypothesis-driven studies at the molecular and population levels. This work will necessarily require the merger of the skeletal materials with the existing clinical and demographic documentation available. Indeed, this is one of the natural strengths of the Cobb Collection in particular. We are interested in promoting research that is technologically sophisticated and historically important.
Our research direction for the Cobb Research Laboratory will augment the established record on these remains with quantifiable historic geospatial data and molecular genetic assessments such that deeper and more specific questions can be asked and addressed than were previously possible. Indeed, we feel that this approach is highly consistent with the original goals and objectives of Dr. Cobb as articulated in his published and unpublished writings.
To initiate this new generation of research on the Cobb Collection, we have established a standard scientific protocol involving 1.) Review of all research proposals by our internal Advisory Board and Director for approval, 2.) Collaborative Institutional Training Imitative (CITI) completion by all prospective researchers, and 3.) Howard University Institutional Review Board (IRB) clearance for the planned research. The Cobb Collection is not a public collection, it is a private collection belonging to Howard University, a private research institution of higher education, and it is a collection to which we hope to add additional samples over time. The Cobb Collection is accessible to qualified researchers through the Cobb Research Laboratory in the College of Arts and Sciences. All prospective researchers are asked to complete a systematic protocol that is consistently required of both internal and external investigators. Even researchers wishing to study the existing database on the Cobb Collection are asked to submit their research questions for review.
The uniqueness of the Cobb Research Laboratory lays in its non-reproducible collection of human skeletons and the documentation that accompanies many of the skeletons. We use the study of anatomy as a fundamental approach to appreciate and understand the collections from a scientific perspective. The utility of comparative anatomical methodology cannot go under appreciated as it has played an important role in Dr. Cobb’s original works debunking racial biology theories. In addition, advancements in 3D scanning and printing technology will allow us to have not only digital but physical replications of the human anatomy, biomechanics, and eventually re-creation of individuals in the collection. All of these techniques can propel the Cobb Research Lab in emerging fields of engineering design and digitization.
There has been a notable paucity of research on the living conditions, health status and lifestyles of post-enslavement African Americans relative to changing American social conditions. We hope to address this deficit by intentionally using spatial clustering of geocoded data points to identify area and individual level correlations of environmental indices for each individual with documentation in the Cobb Collection and then, whenever possible, linking these layered measurements with global and gene-specific epigenomic evaluations. This effort will draw upon resources available globally, not just at Howard University, and we welcome collaborations within and outside of the university, including relevant corporations.
Using computation biology and bioinformatic approaches, we anticipate developing highly nuanced databases for the Cobb Research Laboratory that will serve as the prototype for next generation studies of other human skeletal collections. The actual transition in research methodologies for the Cobb Collection and what remains of the New York African Burial Ground will entail interdisciplinary research teams of natural scientists, social scientists, clinicians, and physical scientists. We no longer see the Cobb Research Laboratory as the sole or even primary province of biological anthropology. Indeed, we seek a more inclusive research approach guided by the holistic evolutionary, ecological, and biocultural orientations of biological anthropology but including teams of diverse scholars whose special technical expertise will generate high quality and innovative methods to produce novel dialogue and insights into the Cobb Collection.
This vision for the Cobb Research Laboratory centers about investigations guided by the need for evidence-based, historically contextualized studies that reflect the most current and sophisticated methods available. Towards that end, we have established research Memorandums of Understanding with the University of Copenhagen and the National Human Genome Center at Howard University to facilitate state of the art ancient genome extraction and sequencing applications. We have strong relationships with Howard University’s state of the art Center for Computational Biology and BioInformatics and many of the other new core facilities at Howard University to generate both new types of data and more refined versions of older data on the Cobb Collection, in particular. We have a growing group of clinicians with their medical expertise from the College of Dentistry and the College of Medicine at Howard University who are exploring together with social and natural scientists unique, often heretofore unstudied, aspects of the collections and providing a clinical assessment of the documentation available on the many members of the Cobb Collection.
The working vision at the Cobb Research Laboratory emphasizes allowing biological anthropology to take the lead in expanding the frontiers of an inclusive integrative anthropologic mindset into the broad dimensions of science. Howard University has had a long commitment to understanding the societal implications of science and we do not expect to waiver from this now. We invite scientists and scholars to join us in this interdisciplinary initiative, to join with specialists from a variety of relevant disciplines working collaboratively in a new research paradigm for the Cobb Collection and an expanded paradigm for the New York African Burial Ground and the analysis of these established and unique collections of human skeletal remains.***
Dr. Fatimah L.C. Jackson, Ph.D. is the Director and Curator of W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory.
Christopher N. Cross, M.S. is the Assistant Curator of the W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory
© W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory