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Team Science

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

It’s not just that her role in a large study landed her in Science, a leading academic journal, or even that it landed her work on the cover — although that was a highlight.

For Valorie Aquino, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, the big feat was getting to work with the people who have just helped establish a connection between climate change and the demise of the Maya. That, and her instrumental role in the project.

Aquino worked with UNM anthropology professor and researcher Keith Prufer, and Victor Polyak and Yemane Asmerom, both of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. They used climate dating to correlate droughts with the decline in the Mayan civilization and worked with scientists from universities in England, Switzerland, Germany, Belize, Pennsylvania, California and Oregon.

The team’s study, “Development and Disintegration of Maya Political Systems in Response to Climate Change,” was published in the Nov. 9 issue of Science and publicized in several newspapers. Prufer and Asmerom served as principal investigators.

“It’s thrilling,” Aquino said. “I never really, as an undergrad, thought before … that I would be part of something that’s in Science, let alone on the cover.”

UNM’s contribution to the worldwide, and yearslong, project was crucial.

On the anthropology end, Prufer and Aquino collected samples from the Yok Blum Cave in Belize, examining a stalagmite in order to date it.

Prufer travels to Belize at last three times a year. In addition to collecting samples, he monitors electronic equipment he installed that gauges radon gas, temperatures and carbon dioxide.

Aquino also has collected samples, as well as drilling the stalagmite and examining powder samples to figure out how old each layer is. The team later compared rainfall to documented times of prosperity and found a direct correlation. In the years of drought, there was strife and political discord.

The dating took place in the UNM Earth and Planetary Sciences’ Radiogenic Isotope Laboratory, one of few places in the world where this kind of work could be done. In one room of the lab, Aquino and lab manager Polyak separated elements, which in this case were thorium and uranium. In the other, they used a mass spectrometer to separate their isotopes and then to measure them.

“We are one of the few labs in the world that is able to do this kind of work. It is a real bright spot for UNM,” said Asmerom, who oversaw that aspect of the project. Asmerom said the project was possible through constant collaboration, but that UNM’s role was critical. “It wouldn’t have been possible without it. Period. It was the backbone,” he said.

Prufer also lauded the team effort.

“This is an example of collaborative work at its best,” Prufer said. “We’re all really pleased. This is the dream for scientists, to be published in Science. This is the top scientific journal in the world, and to be able to have them recognize the significance of our work is really a validation of all the effort we put into it as a team.”