College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

10 May 2019

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An insight into biological anthropology

Associate Professor Kate Domett’s skills are applicable to archaeological dig sites in South East Asia, anatomy labs anywhere in the world and even forensic pathology labs from time to time.

Her occupation? Biological anthropologist. Associate Professor Domett is an expert in bones, particularly those that belonged to sick people thousands of years ago, which is where her expertise in palaeopathology (the study of disease in the past) comes in handy.

Like many of the educators at James Cook University, Domett is more than competent in a few other areas as well, working as an anatomy lecturer, as well as serving as the acting course coordinator for first year medicine students.

Kate Dommet at an archaeological site
Kate Dommet uncovering a human skeleton at an archaeological dig

According to Domett, palaeopathology can give insight into all sorts of diseases, from cancer to osteoporosis, allowing us to examine how these diseases affect people without the help of modern medicine.

“I specialise in teaching human anatomy and researching palaeopathology at JCU,” she said. “Palaeopathology is the study of diseases in the past. We learn about how people lived and how they coped with past conditions so we can learn where we have come from and apply that to future events.

“I also use this knowledge to help in forensic cases to assist in identification of skeletal remains. I have been called on by the police, the coroner and local archaeologists to identify bones that have been recently uncovered during building construction or beach erosion, for example. More often than not they are animal bones, but we need to be sure so that the correct procedures can then take place.”

A passion for education

Education has been a priority for the Associate Professor for the duration of her time at JCU, and her role as course coordinator hasn't diminished her desire to teach.

“My teaching role also includes acting as the First Year Coordinator for JCU’s medicine students,” Domett said. “It’s a reasonably big role, overseeing eight first year subjects, as well as making sure the students get a good start to their university life.

“I love what I do – that’s the basic thing it all comes down to. I’m motivated by ensuring my students are engaged and achieving. When we tell the students that we value their feedback, we really do! We get some really good ideas from them, and hearing them tell you that your lessons are great is very satisfying.

“With my teaching, I’m always looking at ways to improve. Trying to keep up and implement the innovations in anatomy education is a goal of mine.”

Associate Professor Domett is one of JCU medicine’s most enduring educators, having started there shortly after the school was founded.

“I did have to look up Townsville on a map when I got an interview but I haven’t been disappointed,” she said. “My husband is a marine biologist; we love living in Townsville and raising our family here without the hassles of a big city.”

The New Zealand-born academic is also fortunate enough to supervise aspiring PhD students, some of whom may even follow in her footsteps of becoming one of Australia’s few biological anthropologists.

“Certainly, part of my aim is to inspire a new generation of palaeopathologists, but it’s a small field in Australia,” she said. “One of the most rewarding things about my job is starting with supervising a postgraduate student who knows only a little bit about the discipline, and then seeing them develop and progress through their research. My PhD students start out working with me in the field, and in the following years I can give them more responsibility, and eventually they run their own projects.”

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Associate Professor Kate Domett

Dr Kate Domett is one of only a handful of biological anthropologists in Australia. She is trained in biological and forensic anthropology as well as human anatomy. Kate specialises in paleopathology (the study of disease in the past).

Kate has a particular interest in joint disease (especially osteoarthritis), trauma, dental health, and other pathologies such as infectious diseases. Kate’s research is predominantly conducted in mainland Southeast Asia. She currently has projects in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. On these projects, she works closely with archaeologists to uncover human skeletal remains from ancient cemeteries dated between 1000 to 5000 years ago.