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Finding Empowerment Through Research

“This experience has empowered me, as I have discovered how much I can learn without a textbook or lecture.” —Sarah Ricklan CC’17

Sarah Ricklan CC’17​, a John Jay Scholar majoring in evolutionary biology of the human species, spent a summer conducting research for her senior thesis in Columbia’s osteology laboratory. Here, she talks about the ways in which she found herself empowered by her research.

This past summer, I received Columbia funding to begin conducting independent research for my senior thesis. Under Professor of Anthropology Ralph Holloway’s guidance, I am studying paleoneurology. This involves looking at endocasts, casts of the inside of hominin skulls; these endocasts give impressions of certain brain features, such as volume and organization. I am studying asymmetries in these endocasts.

Humans have particular brain asymmetry patterns that have been associated with language ability and handedness. But when did these patterns evolve in our evolutionary history? Researchers have been investigating these questions by using several different methods, including new three dimensional technologies. I am examining these methods to evaluate their validity and power.

Over the summer, I began the foundational work for my thesis in the osteology laboratory at Columbia University. I began by taking an inventory of the specimens I needed and performing a preliminary examination of the specimens. I also researched and learned how to use some of the methods I am evaluating in my research. Specifically, I learned to use software programs including ITK-SNAP and MeshLab. Since Fall 2016, I have been using traditional methods, 2D imaging methods, and 3D imaging methods to see what each can reveal about the specimens and our human history.

On a personal note, I have, of course, learned so much about the topic. But I have also learned about my own research ability. Since this is an independent project, I have needed to learn about the subject and methodology on my own and with my professor, but without the help of a classroom. This experience has empowered me, as I have discovered how much I can learn without a textbook or lecture. As I prepare to graduate, I look forward to continuing the research I love.


Sarah Ricklan CC’17 is studying the evolutionary biology of the human species. Next year, she plans to pursue an MPhil in applied biological anthropology at Cambridge University studying the evolution of human childbirth, and hopes to attend medical school after that. Sarah has loved Columbia because the Core Curriculum, her peers and her teachers have challenged her to keep investigating.

Last updated Monday May 22, 2017

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