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Two faculty members named AAAS Fellows

by Cindy Weiss & Kristina Goodnough - October 29, 2007

Two UConn researchers will be made fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at its annual meeting in Boston in February.

The two are Sally McBrearty, a professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Laurinda Jaffe, a professor of cell biology.

The AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society, announced its new fellows in the journal Science on Oct. 26.

McBrearty was cited “for distinguished contributions to the field of hominid origins and African paleolithic archaeology, and particularly for her work on the origins of modern human behavior.”

She is known in her field as the co-author of a landmark paper in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2000, “The Revolution That Wasn’t: A New Interpretation of the Origin of Modern Human Behavior.”

That issue of the journal was devoted to the article by McBrearty and Allison Brooks of George Washington University, in which they challenged the then-prevailing view that modern human behavior did not appear until some 45,000 years ago, far later than the appearance of anatomically modern humans.

McBrearty and Brooke reviewed what was known about early humans and concluded that humans were exhibiting modern behavior much earlier.

As McBrearty and co-author Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London wrote in a recent commentary in Nature, “a competing interpretation is that beads, art objects, and other forms of technological and behavioral complexity emerged gradually over the course of the Middle Stone Age (some 285,000 to 45,000 years ago), tracking morphological evolution more closely.

“In this view, early Homo sapiens were essentially neurologically and cognitively identical to modern humans,” they wrote.

The recent, highly publicized Nature commentary discussed new finds by other researchers at a South African cave that support an early origin for modern human behavior, including shellfish used as food and red pigment used as paint.

McBrearty has contributed an article about her views on early human behavior to an upcoming book, Rethinking the Human Revolution.

She is known also for finding the first fossil chimpanzee ever found. In 2004, she found fossil chimpanzee teeth in the Rift Valley of Kenya.

That was the basis of a Nature article, “First Fossil Chimpanzee” in 2005, with co-author Nina G. Jablonski of Pennsylvania State University.

McBrearty came to UConn more than 10 years ago from Brandeis University.

She has done field work in East Africa for more than 25 years and has worked since 1990 in the Kapthurin Formation, a large area with about 60 fossil sites near Lake Baringo in Kenya.

She is affiliated with the National Museums of Kenya.

Among her major research interests are human evolution, the origin of Homo sapiens, paleolithic archaeology, and African prehistory.

Her research has been funded almost continuously since 1993 by the National Science Foundation.

Jaffe was cited for “distinguished contributions to the field of developmental cell biology, particularly for elucidating the molecular pathways by which fertilization triggers the initiation of embryonic development.”

Jaffe has been investigating the process of egg development and fertilization for more than three decades.

Working first with marine animals and more recently with mice, she has focused on a question of basic science: what controls the maturation and fertilization of an oocyte so that it can develop to form a new individual?

Oocytes are stored in the ovaries of females for a long time – up to 50 years in humans – until needed for reproduction.

“My research has been directed at understanding the signals that control the processes of oocyte maturation and fertilization,” Jaffe says.

“Oocytes are acted on by hormones to wake them up and cause them to prepare for fertilization. Then another signal, this one from the sperm, causes the egg to begin development. My research concerns how hormones and sperm communicate signals to the egg.”

Jaffe’s research has relevance to clinical problems of infertility.

“One of the current ideas about treating infertility is a process called in vitro maturation,” she says.

“Eggs would mature in a petri dish rather than in a woman’s ovaries. That could eliminate some of the side effects, pain, expense, and time associated with using large doses of hormones to stimulate egg maturation in the ovaries and then retrieving them for in vitro fertilization.”

Seeking connections between her work and practical problems is important, says Jaffe, who also teaches nerve and muscle physiology to medical students.

But often these connections arise in unanticipated ways.

“Since the communication systems in all cells are very similar, we can never really predict the possible clinical significance of the experiment we’re working on,” she says.

“We could be doing experiments with eggs and learn something that will eventually have practical benefit with regard to nerve, muscle, gland, or skin cells, not necessarily eggs.

“Every question you answer opens up other areas for investigation,” Jaffe adds. “You never run out of questions.”

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