From Israeli digs to Greenland villages, UChicagoans travel the world for research

Students, faculty share how they spent their summers studying everything from languages to glaciers

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series called Dispatches from Abroad, highlighting the stories of UChicago community members who are researching, studying and working around the world.

Pursuing the answers to interesting research questions often takes members of the University of Chicago community to fascinating corners of the world. 

This summer, some UChicago faculty and students enjoyed experiences out in the field—from examining ancient archaeological sites to doing research on Arctic glaciers to studying languages in Mexico and Greenland. Learn about their travels and research in the dispatches below.

Excavating ancient sites in Israel

This summer Samantha Suppes returned to Tell Keisan, an archaeological site co-directed by UChicago and ISAC Prof. David Schloen near Haifa, Israel. 

“It's what we call a “tell” site, which is an artificial mound that is built up over time as people have occupied the site again and again,” said Suppes, a Ph.D. student who goes by The Wandering Archaeologist on YouTube. “Our research questions revolve around understanding who lived here, what kinds of industries they were involved with and what their culture was like based on the remains that we find.”

The site’s many stratigraphic layers stretch all the way back to the Bronze Age. The team has found evidence of Phoencian influence, seafaring people who traded across the Mediterranean.

“This year I'm acting as one of the data managers, which is a new role for me,” Suppes said. “We have a database system that has a very comprehensive way of cataloging our finds. But it is also a vast amount of data to work with.”

Each day the bus leaves at 5 a.m. to take the excavation team to the site. While they spend the day carefully uncovering pottery, animal bones and ancient structures, Suppes is usually back in the office troubleshooting equipment and managing the flow of data—information archaeologists typically have one shot at recording.

“Once you find something and get it out of the ground, that's it,” said Suppes. “It's so important that we get a proper record of everything that we're doing—everything from photos, descriptions to GPS coordinates. Things like that are really key.”

Studying how children learn language in Mexico

Asst. Prof. Marisa Casillas spent the summer in a rural Mayan community in Chiapas, Mexico. Since 2015, she’s been working there to understand early language development by transcribing at-home conversations and measuring vocabulary.

For Casillas, a typical day in the field starts with an early breakfast with her host family followed by a hike up the mountain. 

“I chat and play with my collaborator and her kids before we settle into a few hours of transcription,” Casillas said. “She and I sit side by side at her kitchen table and listen and transcribe the audio jointly.”

The two then head out for a day of data collection, sometimes visiting up to six families a day. This summer, Casillas is developing a vocabulary questionnaire to use with mothers of young children. 

“My collaborator typically runs these questionnaire sessions from start to finish, including consent, instructions, and going through the list of words. Meanwhile I listen in and take copious notes,” Casillas said.

After a long day, the research pair heads back home for snacks and debriefing. Casillas then returns to her host family for dinner, socializing and processing before preparing for another day of fieldwork.

Examining language evolution in Greenland

Prof. Lenore Grenoble has a lot of questions about how languages change—especially Kalaallisut, the major Inuit language of Greenland. Though Greenland has been under Self Government Rule since 2008, it’s still part of the Kingdom of Denmark. This means many, if not most, Greenlanders also speak Danish. 

However, a new language has started spreading rapidly. “Recently we have been seeing a big influx of English,'' Grenoble said. Recent immigrants and temporary workers typically use English. Also, young people are learning English through movies, video games, social media and YouTube.

“My research aims to understand what is happening in this dynamic situation both linguistically and sociolinguistically,” Grenoble said. “Who speaks which language when and with whom? How are Greenlanders learning English and what effect does this have on their knowledge and use of Kalaallisut, their mother or ancestral tongue?”

To answer these questions, Grenoble and project postdoc Jessica Kantarovich spent much of the summer in Nuuk, Greenland observing how people use Kalaallisut. They were particularly interested in reports that the language was getting shorter. 

“Kalaallisut is a polysynthetic language; suffixes take on the job that words do in languages like English,” Grenoble said. “For example: the word qujanaq is ‘thank you’. If you add the suffix -rsuaq, which means ‘big’, you get qujanarsuaq, ‘big thanks’ or ‘thank you very much.’ And if you are really, really grateful, you can add it again: qujanarsuarsuaq, and again, qujanarsuarsuarsuaq, and so on.”

To figure out if and how words were getting shorter, Grenoble and Kantarovich conducted, transcribed, and analyzed interviews in Kalaallisut. They were also interested in the language’s everyday use. 

“We usually spend some time doing participant-observation work, going to public places and observing who is using what language in the stores, in the restaurants, in casual and brief interactions,” Grenoble said. 

The scholars are particularly interested in what Grenoble calls shifting speakers—typically young people still in their homeland who stop learning their parents’ minority language and shift to the majority one. 

“​​We are losing a lot of languages due to language shift, when speakers of a language decide, or are forced, to stop speaking their language for a number of reasons. There are 6,500 or so languages in the world and we predict that we will lose anywhere from 50-90% of them over the course of this century.”

Tapping glaciers to test seismological models

Freya Chen traveled north, too—to Resolute Bay in Nunavut, Canada. There, researchers gathered at a Canadian Arctic base to get their equipment ready to do research even further north.

Chen, a graduate student in Geophysical Sciences, is studying the seismology of glaciers. “The movements of ice shelves, glaciers, and ocean waves can cause tiny ground motions,” she explained. Special instruments can pick up these movements, which are virtually imperceptible to humans, but over time can have significant consequences for the ice.

“Those signals can help us understand the properties of glaciers and ice shelves,” Chen said. This is particularly important for building accurate models to predict how climate change will unfold in the poles.

At the base, Chen prepared the equipment for coming field work. They had to test their techniques and calibrate their seismometers. The rest of the field team then spent about 20 days camping on the ice shelves and collecting data. They also hope to take similar readings in Antarctica in future years.

The most challenging part, however, was waiting for the right weather for the helicopter to land on the ice shelf, Chen said. “If it’s foggy or there’s too much snow on the landing area, it’s too dangerous, so you simply have to wait.”