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Unearthing History with Sarah Anzick

Sarah Anzick 1.jpgEvery year since 2006, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Biotechnology Education has held a research symposium where biotechnology students at Johns Hopkins showcase academic research through independent projects, fellowships and master’s theses. This annual research symposium in May allows Hopkins to recognize and highlight excellence in research.

This year, the symposium will be held from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, May 4.

The keynote speaker will be Sarah Anzick, a researcher for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – and a former JHU Biotechnology instructor. A truly remarkable discovery was found on her family’s property in Montana in 1968: ancient human remains, later found to be thousands of years old.

Hopkins Happenings asked Anzick about her background, the discovery and her research.

Note: Anzick undertook the research privately as a representative of her family and no federal agency or funding was involved in the study.

Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about your educational background.

Anzick: I received my bachelor’s degree in biology from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, in 1988.  My goal in college was to apply for medical school but my junior year I worked a summer internship at Los Alamos National Labs and discovered my passion for genetic research.  In 1994, I earned a master’s degree in Medical Sciences from the University of New Mexico, School of Medicine.  I moved across the country to work at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at NIH and later earned my Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Oncology from George Washington University.

Hopkins Happenings: What are your connections to Johns Hopkins?

Anzick: A friend and colleague who taught courses at the Montgomery County Campus encouraged me to look into teaching in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Biotechnology program.  I instructed Cancer Biology for a number of years and later developed a new course called Molecular Targets and Cancer.  My other connections with JHU included a research collaboration with a physician on the JHU main campus.

Hopkins Happenings: Where do you work now?

Anzick: I work in the Genomics Unit of the Research Technologies Branch at Rocky Mountain Labs (RML) in Hamilton, MT.  RML is a component of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at NIH.

Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about the discovery on your family’s property. 


Anzick: The discovery of the ancient burial site was in the summer of 1968.  Two construction workers had received permission from my father to get fill from his land for a construction project at a local school.  The men were removing sandstone from the hillside on the property when one of the workers noticed an unusual stone that had dropped out of the loader bucket.  Upon closer examination, he immediately recognized it as a potential stone artifact.  They continued to dig with hand tools and recovered several stone and bone artifacts.  Later that evening, the men returned with their wives to uncover more than 100 stone and bone tools from the area, including the fragmentary remains of a sub-adult human.  The finders recalled that everything was covered in “red stuff,” which we know now is red ochre, an iron hematite that was used since prehistoric times as a ceremonial substance.  The site, named “The Anzick Site” 24PA506, was professionally excavated by archeologists shortly after the discovery in 1968, again in 1971, and finally in 1999.  The human remains were dated by AMS radiocarbon dating and confirmed to be of Clovis age, 12,894 calendar years ago. The Anzick Site is truly unique because it is the only known Clovis burial site identified to date.

Hopkins Happenings: How did that discovery influence your life’s work?

Anzick: The finding itself did not necessarily influence my life’s work until I became the steward of the human remains in 1999.   From that point on, my life changed.  Working on the Human Genome Project during my employment at Los Alamos National Labs, I came to realize the how much we can learn from this amazing book of instructions.  From Los Alamos, I transferred to NHGRI where it occurred to me there might be a possibility of getting sequence information from the ancient remains.  The hope was to glean insight into who were these earliest Americans.  Over time, I realized the challenges and sensitivities involving studies of ancient remains but felt it was important for all of humanity. The sequencing started in 2009 and completed in 2013. I think the Anzick Site has influenced my life’s work by making me realize that success, in part, is the result of facing numerous challenges and sacrifices.  Though I have not pursued a career in archeology, paleontology, population genetics, or ancient genomics, I now have a greater understanding for how these disciplines converge to advance discoveries of our human history.

Hopkins Happenings: What’s the significance of this? Why is this important to understanding our ancestry?

Anzick: The biggest significance is the confirmation that American Indians have been on this continent for a very long time.  Our work shows that the first people did not come from Europe or France (i.e., the Solutrean theory), as was advocated based on cranial morphology and archeological data, but from Siberia.  We’ve learned through their genetics that indigenous peoples were established in the Americas as long as 15,000 years ago.  This has given us a greater understanding of Native American ancestry.  The results also demonstrated a Western Eurasian contribution to the Native American genome, which occurred approximately 24,000 years ago in Siberia.  Studies of ancient genomes allow us to glean insight into human evolution and migration.

Hopkins Happenings: What will be the focus of your keynote address during the research symposium?

Anzick: I’ve been asked to speak about the Anzick site work so I will tell my personal story by first presenting a short history and description of the burial site and then I’ll discuss the work that was performed to sequence the Anzick child genome.  The results will be presented and tied in with what we have learned from other ancient skeletons. I hope the audience learns a little about archeology, the challenges of working with ancient DNA, and the peopling of the Americas. I’m really looking forward to visiting JHU, seeing familiar faces, and engaging with the students.

CATEGORY: Academics