Life Stories in Body and Bone

Megan Veltri studies skulls. But more than that, she studies how our lives etch their stories into our bones.

Megan Veltri standing in the anthropology lab

Veltri is an anthropology master’s student researching the implications of social race on the skeleton, specifically in the symmetry of the skull. This spring, she received a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide support as she conducts her research, which is based out of Texas State’s Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Lab.

Broadly speaking, humans are symmetrical: a pair of eyes, a nose centered in our face, and so on. But we are not perfectly symmetrical, even early in development before life brings superficial deviations like scars or wrinkles. “Fluctuating asymmetry” refers to all of these tiny imperfections that occur in the structure of the body. Anthropologists know that fluctuating asymmetry comes into being during an individual’s growth and development — including the time before they’re even born — due to factors such as poor nutrition, low socioeconomic status and other environmental stressors. Because of institutionalized racism over many years and many aspects of life, those factors tend to fall disproportionately on people of color. What Veltri wants to investigate is whether these cultural conditions are correlated with biological, skeletal characteristics. “I wanted to look at fluctuating asymmetry to see if there are differences in social race groups,” she explains.

Veltri wants her research to illuminate how our lived experiences in the world affect us on a bone-deep level.

Veltri is looking specifically at fluctuating facial asymmetry: the deviation from perfect in the bones of the face. Texas State’s Donated Skeletal Collection — human remains that have been given for scientific study — is vital to her work and to that of many other researchers. “Some people use it for forensics, some people use it for bioanthropology, some people use it for genetics. That’s why I wanted to stay at Texas State for my master’s, because of the resources.”

The asymmetrical features that Veltri is analyzing are very small. She might be able to see, just by looking, that a nasal cavity is a little bit bigger on one side than the other, but other differences are less visible. To quantify these features, she uses a piece of equipment called a microscribe digitizer. It’s essentially a stylus on an arm connected to a computer; when she places the tip of the stylus gently on the skull, the software records that point’s location in three-dimensional space. One point at a time, she builds a cloud of data — a visual representation, in 3D, of the skull’s landmarks.

Veltri measures a human skull
Veltri in the antropology lab

After collecting this raw data, Veltri can perform a statistical analysis to look at how each skull, or group of skulls, deviates from average or from perfect symmetry. Because every skeleton within the university’s donated collection is paired with extensive information about the person (race, sex, age, medical history and so on), Veltri can look for potential patterns between a person’s life, their social race and the fine details of their skull. Her study is specifically comparing three groups of people: white, black and Hispanic.

Veltri wants her research to illuminate how our lived experiences in the world affect us on a bone-deep level. “I’m hoping that it’ll show, not necessarily that there are racial differences — because biological race doesn’t exist — but that social race has implications,” she says. “I hope it raises an awareness that the way people experience their social race is specific to them, that it’s not something we can impose on them.”

Topics like this have always mattered to Veltri. “My family is Hispanic. I’m half Hispanic and half white. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, especially in America, around racial inequities. That’s always been something I’ve been interested in,” she says.

Her excellence in her field has led not only to receiving the Sallie Beretta Senior Woman award in her last year of undergraduate studies, but also the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship.

Her journey into anthropology started with considering forensics as teenager. “But it kind of fell off the table,” she remembers. “When I graduated high school, there was no way I was going to college. College is expensive and my family couldn’t afford it. But then things fell into place.” She navigated through the often-complex processes of financial aid and found that Pell grants would give her the opportunity to attend community college in San Antonio. She earned her associate’s degree there before transferring to Texas State to complete her bachelor’s.

While she continued to find forensics interesting during her undergraduate years, Veltri began to move away from of the field of legal skeletal analysis towards another specialty. Her focus now is in medical and biological anthropology: understanding how culture and biology influence health and, more holistically, how we live. Her excellence in her field has led not only to receiving the Sallie Beretta Senior Woman award in her last year of undergraduate studies, but also the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship this year — a grant to cover her tuition and other expenses.

“School was always something that worried me,” Veltri says, reflecting on her youth. “We never had money. I knew that starting school and completing a degree would help me.” The fellowship from the NSF changes everything. Awe and pride enter her voice as she looks at where she is now: “It’s so weird that I don’t need to worry about paying for the next three years. And I’m so damn glad.” ⭑