VCU anthropology professor hunts for fossils of humans’ earliest origins

Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., and Omar Abdullah show off hominin teeth fossils that they found in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology professor Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., just returned from a research trip to Ethiopia where she served as part of the Ledi-Geraru Research Project that in 2013 discovered a fossil of the earliest member of the genus Homo, pushing back the origin of humans’ genus to 2.8 million years ago.

Rector Verrelli, an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was one of a team of researchers from Arizona State University, Pennsylvania State University, George Washington University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas hunting for fossils in the Afar region of Ethiopia, between the Ledi and Geraru rivers.

“It has deposits that are between about 1 million and 3 million years ago, so the goal is to look for fossils of our ancestors from that time period,” Rector Verrelli said. “In that area, that usually means Australopithecus afarensis (famous for the Lucy skeleton), but in 2013 project scientists discovered the earliest member of our genus, the genus Homo.”

Researchers in 2013 found a partial hominin mandible with teeth from the Ledi-Geraru research area, thereby establishing the presence of Homo between 2.8 million and 2.75 million years ago. The find extended the record of recognizable Homo by at least a half-million years, shedding new light on human evolution.

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VCU’s new La Esperanza Lab to study health disparities, impact of immigration policy on Richmond’s Latinx population

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Growing up in Arizona as the son of Mexican immigrants, Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D., saw firsthand how the United States’ immigration policies could affect Latinx communities.

Now, as a new faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, Moreno is gearing up to study how policies — including access to health care, immigration restrictions and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — are affecting Latinx students at VCU, as well as the growing Hispanic population of the Richmond region.

“The reason why I do this is because I feel heavily involved with these communities. I come from a Latin community myself. I was raised in Phoenix, the hub of immigration policies [that were characterized by] discrimination constructs, prejudice and institutional biases,” said Moreno, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Now all that’s on a national platform, impacting communities like Richmond.”

Moreno’s La Esperanza Lab (“esperanza” is Spanish for “hope”) at VCU aims to understand and address health care disparities in the United States that affect individuals from low-income and racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

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