In February of this year, our lab received samples from mummies interred beneath the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilinus, Lithuania. These samples represented intestinal, abdominal, and rectal contents from a handful of individual mummies. We analyzed these samples in search of parasites, starches, and pollen grains. The analysis was conducted by myself, my major professor, and a UCARE student whom we lovingly referred to as our "under-grunt". (UCARE is a program through our university that sponsors undergraduate research. It stands for "Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences".)
By the end of the month, we had not only finished the parasite analysis (the pollen analysis extended for another month or so), but I had also prepared a manuscript for publication regarding our parasite findings. Basically, we had found that one of the ten samples analyzed contained the eggs of both Ascaris lumbricoides (human mawworm) and Trichuris trichiura (human whipworm). These findings were exciting (aside from the fact that we found parasite eggs, which is always a cool thing) because this represented the first report of parasitic geohelminths in mummies from this area dating to this time period (18th-19th century). We also found lots of really cool mites along with their eggs, and we were able to discuss differential preservation of parasite eggs within mummy contexts because we found underdeveloped T. trichiura eggs. The discovery of these underdeveloped eggs coupled with encountering these eggs in groups of 2, 3, or in one case 9, led us to conclude that we had rehydrated material that had once had a female T. trichiura embedded within it. As the gravid (i.e. full of eggs) female decomposed, the eggs preserved inside of the mummy, but were never able to embryonate. This discovery highlights a problem that one only encounters when dealing with mummies as archaeoparasitological analysis of coprolites (desiccated feces) or latrine/privy/sewer/water closet sediments will only yield eggs that are more developmentally advanced because they were passed by the female and subsequently by the depositor of the feces. Hence, people who study mummy parasites must be able to recognize parasite eggs that are underdeveloped in addition to recognizing their fully-developed counterparts.
We sent this paper to our co-authors in Lithuania and everyone gave the manuscript the green light for submission. We chose to submit our paper to the International Journal for Paleopathology (henceforth known as "IJPP"). Before March had even rolled around we were anxiously awaiting reviewer comments. I'll spare you the details of the reviewer comments (both the constructive ones and the ones that merely demonstrated the reviewer's complete lack of familiarity with basic archaeoparasitological methodologies and concepts). The take-home here is that I got my baptism under fire as an author undergoing the peer-review process.
This may have been my first paper, but I wasn't completely naive when it came to the process. I had been told (or more precisely "warned") about how one could receive scathing reviews or about how reviewers weren't always well-suited to critique the work that they were reading. I was prepared to have a thick skin and to take every comment as a device for perfecting our paper. I was prepared to make both minor and major changes and to accept the criticism from people I assumed to be much more experienced than myself. What I was not prepared for were the asinine comments that served no purpose other than to point out "errors" that didn't really exist. I quickly learned that some of the reviewers could in no way be classified as my "peers", much less as experts in the field if they didn't understand some of the most fundamental concepts of the discipline. It was an odd experience, to say the least.
To balance out the oddness, we did have some really great comments from reviewers as well. We were asked to revise and resubmit. (Which is what every author wants to hear!) We made the changes. The paper went from a case study to a brief communication and we dropped all of the information about the mites. (Something for another paper someday.) We re-submitted and after a few weeks, the paper came back with additional reviewer comments and we were asked to make more dramatic changes and to resubmit again. We made said changes, shifting the focus of the article more toward the taphonomic aspects of the paper. We again, resubmitted. We were met with an additional request to revise and resubmit. By the end of it all, we had a very different looking manuscript than we had begun with, but we had a great article that was about to be published, which made all of the hassle worthwhile.
After editorial corrections and approving galley proofs, it finally happened. In August, a whole half of a year after the initial submission, I saw my name as first author on my first ever peer-reviewed scientific article. My first piece of primary literature will forever be cited as "Morrow et al., 2014". That's a good feeling!
The Moral of the Story
Sometime, it's okay to be a "late bloomer" as a scientist. I may not have had a publication as an undergraduate or even as a master's student, but my first one really was special. My first one taught me the skill of navigating the submission process as I was the corresponding author in charge of submission and communication with my co-authors. It taught me the importance of diplomacy and collaboration as I was in charge of coordinating revision efforts. It taught me patience, that the review process takes time whether you spend weeks or years preparing a manuscript. Most importantly, it taught me to handle idiotic comments in tactful, diplomatic language without buckling to the whims of reviewers who are blatantly incorrect in their assertions. (And, of course, it taught me to take constructive criticism...providing that it is, in fact, constructive...and use it as the wet stone to sharpen the blade of an incredible manuscript.) I'm so thankful that this particular experience was my first experience with peer-reviewed publication as bonafide scientist. Here's to many more in my future!
The article can be found online in all of it's full-color glory here if you are interested.
Ha! You thought I forgot about your sneak previews, didn't you! Fear not, faithful readers, for I shall never let you down! I can't disclose much until things actually get published, but here's a few topics covered by some of my "works in progress". In no particular order:
-Lack of parasites from embalming jars containing the remains of members of a very prominent Italian family. [Submitted.]
-Parasites from coprolites out of Medieval burials. [Just resubmitted this one for publication on Friday!
-Insects from an Italian mummy who is now a saint...making the insect remains "holy relics". (True story.) [In revision with co-authors.]
-Pollen/Dietary analysis of Lithuanian mummies. [Working on a manuscript.]
-Parasites from 1,200-1,400 year-old coprolites sealed beneath an adobe floor in a cave in Mexico. [Funding pending.]
-New methods for recovering parasite information from previously un-utilized source materials. [Funding pending.]
-Analyses of mites from European mummies. [Analysis ongoing.]
-Analysis of sediments from a sod house wall. [Analysis scheduled for later this semester.]
-Pollen and possible parasite analysis from a 8,000-9,000 year old Brazilian burial site. [Analysis scheduled for the Spring.]
-An assessment of the efficiency of flotation for pollen recovery out of karstic soils. [Analysis scheduled for the Spring.]
-A comparative review of archaeoparasitiological methods in contemporary literature. [Ongoing work on a manuscript.]
-Lice collected from a pre-clovis cave. [Waiting for samples.]