Western Graduate & Postdoctoral  Studies

Renee Willmon

Graduate Studies, Western University - Renee Willmon (Bioarchaeology)

PhD Candidate, Anthropology
Vanier Scholar 

One picture is worth a thousand words: A 3D investigation of the evolutionary impact of TB

My research on Tuberculosis (TB) uses state of the art digital 3D imaging and visualization technology available through the Sustainable Archaeology Ancient Images Laboratory and the Robarts Research Institute to study the impact and spread of the disease in the pre-antibiotic era. The current gold standard in ancient TB diagnosis is DNA based, however its application is limited by its destructive nature and the preservation problems that affect human and pathogen DNA after thousands of years. Through the direct examination of the skeletal remains of individuals who were affected by the disease in pre-contact North America and Europe, I use medical and micro-CT to translate skeletal lesions into an understanding of the impact of disease on individuals and societies in the past without destroying culturally sensitive human remains. Patterns of ancient disease in geographically, temporally and culturally diverse populations can then reveal the broader cultural and environmental factors that affected the interaction between humans and TB-causing bacteria through time and space.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis is a bacterial pathogen claimed to be responsible for more morbidity and mortality than any other, and continues to present a growing global health threat in light of multi-drug-resistant and extensively-drug-resistant forms, and its rapid spread in regions where access to pharmacologic therapies is limited. It is thus important to explore questions related to the evolutionary history and past experience of TB unhindered by pharmacologic therapy, to contextualize the present experience of the disease and potentially anticipate future trends in its spread.

My work is conducted in collaboration with the Huron-Wendat Nation, whose ancestors I study, to investigate their health history. My research will increase our understanding of the impact that TB had on the ancestors’ experience of disease through time, and may shed light on the modern implications of TB for Canadian First Nations. The use of multiple forms of CT to investigate the bone changes initiated by TB is also helping to develop a clear understanding of the utility of different imaging techniques to study health in the past from skeletal remains, and is refining our ability to diagnose TB in its various stages of skeletal manifestation.

Western’s demonstrated excellence in imaging research, their willingness to support and facilitate the international nature of my program, and the welcoming and encouraging faculty and staff in the department of anthropology all played a role in choosing Western to do my PhD. Western provides the close-knit community of a smaller university with the resources associated with top research institutions. The possibilities and enthusiasm for multi-disciplinary research has been amazing!