University: Des Moines University

Researcher: Lauren Butaric, Ph.D., assistant professor of anatomy in the Master of Science in Anatomy and
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine programs,

Status: In progress

Research overview: 
Lauren Butaric’s research examines the connection between how geographic climate influenced the development of the nasal cavity and maxillary sinus, located deep in the face, in individuals from across the world. In the future, that link between cavity shape and climatic pressure (such as temperature or humidity) may influence how respiratory diseases are studied. 

“My research looks into craniofacial variation, which is a fancy way of saying I look at people’s skulls,” Butaric said. 

As she studied for her master’s degree in anthropology at Florida Atlantic University, Butaric noticed that published papers examining the nasal cavity and the impact of climate most often cited a 1977 study as the “definitive answer for nasal-sinus form and function,” she said. 

“I noticed the authors actually said they didn’t have a definitive answer and that more testing needed to be done -- but nobody had actually done that research, and it had been decades,” Butaric said. 

In 2005, she began the research herself. 

The method: 
Butaric used computed tomography (CT) scans to create 3D volumes of the nasal cavity and maxillary sinuses, then compared them among individuals from diverse geographic regions. 

CT scanning allowed her to visually assess the interiors of skulls from museums and local hospitals, including a recent trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to collect samples in April. Once they are scanned, Butaric creates digital models, notes “landmark” features in the nasal cavity and sinuses, and assigns geographic coordinates of the sample’s origin.

“I can then compare these landmark positions among individuals from geographic locations to see how populations vary in regard to the size and shape of their nasal cavity and sinuses,” Butaric said. “I have done this for hundreds of individuals, and am continuing to do so.” 

The study has shown how many questions still remain in the links between climate and nasal cavity shapes. Most of her samples are the fully formed skulls of adults. 

“Children are the individuals most susceptible to respiratory damage and are in danger of dying from respiratory infections. Thus, we need to determine when the functionally relevant nasal shape appears during growth and development,” Butaric said. “Further, we know that biological males and females have different respiratory needs … but we don’t know how those male versus female needs vary in different environments. 
“It was a very simple study, but it actually showed that the relationship of these structures was a lot more complicated than everyone had been saying,” she added.

Butaric is planning to expand her research with an anatomy professor and aerospace engineer at the University of North Texas, where researchers will model airflow in different nasal cavities. That will allow them to test climate parameters, including temperature and humidity. 
“I am still struck by the idea of multiple researchers citing a study as a ‘definitive answer’ over a decade without realizing that the study actually said they couldn’t answer a specific question and more testing need to be done,” Butaric said.