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Interview with Rebecca Gilmour

Journalist: Jeryn Anthonypillai

Jeryn: Hello and welcome to SciSection. My name is Jeryn Anthonypillai and I'm a journalist for SciSection radio show broadcast on the CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Rebecca Gilmour, an assistant professor at Mount Royal University. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Jeryn: Of course. So to begin, would you like to give a quick overview of your academic background?

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: Yeah, sure. So as you said, I'm currently working at Mount Royal university out in Calgary. I'm brand new to the job. I just started in August, but prior to that, I got my Ph.D. from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and my master's from Durham university out in the UK. And I did an undergraduate degree in archeology from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC.

Jeryn: Awesome. So what would you say would be your main focus in research?

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: Currently? So I'm an archeologist, I should say. I'm a bio archeologist, somebody who specializes in studying skeletal remains, human skeletal remains in past contexts. So my research currently blends paleopathology, which has the study of health and disease. And specifically within that, I look at fractures and injury to the skeleton. So I blend this paleo pathological approach with what's called biomechanics and biomechanics is the study of how our skeleton in particular adapts to the strains and the forces that we place on it as we're active throughout our daily lives. So I bring these two things together to look at the long-term implications or the long-term repercussions of our injuries on our skeletons. So for example, if you break a bone and then that inhibits your ability to use your arm, or maybe walk around as you did before, then that evidence of that sort of impaired movement, impaired motion impaired mobility should then be preserved and integrated into our skeleton, through sort of the activity, as it changes the shape and the thickness of our bones. And so I'm able to use these two premises failure, pathology and biomechanics, to look at how people in the past may have recovered from or responded to their injuries. And a lot of the work that I do has been with ancient Romans in particular, looking at how these Romans may have sustained their injuries and then how may they may have recovered from those injuries in the long-term.

Jeryn: And is this your current research right now? Cause I know you've done a lot of research in the past.

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: Yeah. So, my research right now is varied. So the Romans are part of it and working on injury recovery and looking at the evidence for that in Roman skeletons is one aspect I'm also interested in how somebody's activity prior to sustaining an injury may actually influence their risk for injury. And so some of my new research we'll kind of delve into that realm. And most recently I started a project, two summers ago looking at a documented skeletal collection in the Netherlands. And so this means that we know who these people were. We have their names, we have their ages when they died. We know if they were like, if they were male or female, and in some cases, we have their occupations. And so I've used skeletal elements, in particular, a bone in their hands, to help us develop new ways of looking at bone loss and quantifying bone amounts in fragmentary or broken archeological contexts. And this is pretty normal because in archeology, the remains are buried for a really long period of time. And so it's not likely that they're going to come out perfectly preserved is that you often have pieces that are broken or missing parts of those bones. And so having ways to quantify that bone that doesn't require a complete element is something that's really important. So I have a project currently, that's running, looking at that, looking at these new ways of bone quantification for fragmentary elements. And I am hoping really soon to branch into using some more modern material. And there's this really unique, CT database it's available, it's called the New Mexico decedent image database. And so it contains CT images of over 15,000 individuals who have unfortunately passed away. But those CTs themselves have been made. They've been anonymized and then been made available for research. So I'm hoping to extend my work on looking at fractures and bone loss and recovery after injury, to looking at these modern individuals and hopefully developing some new directions to help us then apply what we're finding to these past populations to really better understand how people were living in the past.

Jeryn: That's really interesting. So what actually made you get started in this specific field?

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: So I knew forever, I always knew I was going to be an archeologist or at least I wanted to be an archeologist. And when I was in high school, you know, how they make you do those career and personal planning presentations where you tell the class what you might want to do. And I did mine on how to be an archeologist and I must've been, I don't know, 12 or 13. So back then I knew I wanted to do this. And then I just kind of took the steps that I needed to get me there when I got to Simon Fraser and did my undergraduate, I took courses in biological anthropology and in bioarchaeology using the human skeletal remains and studying pathology in those skeletons. And I just fell in love with it. And I myself have had multiple fractures. When I was younger, I broke my arm rollerblading and then snowboarding. And I've had multiple broken legs from horseback riding and, and things like that. And so being an active person and then also experiencing these injuries, I really was curious what my own skeleton might look like. And if I was found by an archeologist many years in the future, what they would think about me and about the fractures that I'd sustained, how they might've been caused and then how I managed to get around afterward. And so really it's this own, this kind of personal, self-reflection, this interest in what I've experienced and trying to then take that inspiration and apply it to these archeological contexts so we can better represent better interpret what these people in the past may have actually encountered.

Jeryn: And I can definitely see that you have a lot of passion for this field. So what topic was your personal favourite to explore and why?

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: Oh my goodness. I don't know. It's such a hard choice. I've been really lucky to do lots of different excavations around the world and different projects. But I think right now, the thing that's inspiring the most is being able to give as accurate a depiction of these people's people's experiences as I possibly can. And it's really neat to be able to help tell their stories and help tell, you know, at least in an active or a functional sense what they may have encountered day to day. I know after my last fractured leg incident, I have ankle arthritis and I know some days are really good and some days I really, you know, I'm stiff and it's kinda hard to do some of the things that I did before. And it's neat to be able to, to see how that might actually be manifested in the past. And so I think that's kind of one of the things that most interests me right now is being able to accurately interpret what's going on in these individuals that we obviously can't have any conversation with them anymore.

Jeryn: For sure. And what do you think is the most important piece of your research that you want people to know about?

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: The most important piece of my research. I think the work that I'm doing right now, even though it's on people from the past on these archeological skeletons, I think it has the potential to really inform how we respond to our own injuries and the things that pain us maybe even arthritis is that in the Romans that I look at they tended to really just get back to work afterward is that they may have a fracture that fracture heals. And then, you know, we have very little evidence that they experienced any long-term or sustained impairment following that. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that these particular groups of Romans had sort of economic reasons and various other reasons that they had to get back to work is that they couldn't stop moving. In our modern world, it's us ourselves. And to, to remember that we have to keep going as much as we possibly can. We can adapt to our injuries. We can adapt to our circumstances, but it's that continued mobility that's really going to help preserve our bone quality in the long term. And so that articulation of these things that we're learning from the people and how it might be able to help inform our modern recovery, I think is really important.

Jeryn: I totally agree. For our final question, what advice would you give to students who might be interested in pursuing research?

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: I think It's about getting involved and about taking opportunities when they're presented to you and also seeking those opportunities out is that you know, when I reflect back on the things that I've done and the people that I've met, it's sometimes, the most minor interaction that's actually then snowballed and led to bigger things down the road. And I remember, I was in Vienna visiting a friend and she invited me to go to like a weekend workshop on human osteology and skeletal analysis. And I'd already done my education and it wasn't really something that I needed, but I went with her and I met one of the instructors at that chorus was a professor at the university in Vienna who introduced me to the head of an archeology contract company who then let me come out and volunteer. And then eventually I ended up with a job with that particular contract company a couple of years later. And I ended up using some of the skeletons that I excavated in my Ph.D. research and in my continued work today. And so it's just because of that one chance encounter that thing that I didn't say no to that I snapped up the opportunity that everything kind of snowballs.

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: So if I were to suggest or recommend or provide any advice to future students, looking into, going into research is just get involved and try and do as much as you can and go to as much as you can and meet as many people because you never know when that door is going to be opened.

Jeryn: I think that's definitely great advice to give to the students that are listening. And that actually brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you again for joining me today.

Dr. Rebecca Gilmour: Thank you so much for having me. It's been lovely.

Jeryn: Of course, and that's it for this week of SciSection. Make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms.


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