In her pioneering studies, Cynthia Beall became used to the heady atmosphere high in the mountains of Tibet, Ethiopia and Peru. Now she’ll share rarified air with Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and more as a new member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Beall, a Distinguished University Professor and the Sarah Idell Pyle Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, has spent her career uncovering how modern human populations continue to evolve, adapting to the dearth of oxygen at high altitudes.
The academy was formed in 1780 by founding fathers John Adams, John Hancock and others to “cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”
“It’s a great honor joining some remarkable members from the present and the past,” Beall said. “George Washington and Margaret Meade were members at one time, and Charles Darwin. What more could an anthropologist want?”
Beall is Case Western Reserve’s third academy fellow. Lynn Landmesser, Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Neurosciences at the School of Medicine was elected in 1993. Simon Ostrach, the Wilbert J. Austin Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Engineering, in the department of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Case School of Engineering, was elected in 2001.
A 37-year faculty member, Beall is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the Human Biology Association’s Franz Boas Distinguished Achievement Award and its Raymond Pearl Memorial Award.
“Cynthia is an extraordinary scientist, a wonderful colleague, an outstanding teacher and mentor, and she is passionately devoted to developing the public understanding of science,” said Cyrus Taylor, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve. “This is a very well-deserved recognition.”
During her career, Beall has repeatedly changed the course of research in high-altitude human biology. She has shown that highlanders in the Andes and the Himalayas adapted differently to life in thin air. She and colleagues discovered the mechanisms that enable the populations to thrive where lowlanders face altitude sickness. Among Tibetans, they identified a major gene underlying one adaptive trait and found strong evidence of natural selection—women with the gene had twice as many children as those without. Later, they identified a genetic locus that associated with another adaptive trait and also gave strong evidence of natural selection.
More recently, she and fellow researchers have shown that Tibetans and the Amhara, an ethnic group that has lived high in the mountains of Ethiopia for more than 5,000 years, have the same adaptation that reduces the risk blood clots and stroke—common risks for lowlanders. But they found different genes are behind the adaptation, evidence of convergent evolution. That is, the two populations used different genetic means to the same biological end.
Beall and the rest of the 2013 class will be inducted at a ceremony on Oct. 12 at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.
She will join the academy’s more than 4,600 fellows and 600 Honorary Foreign Members who are leaders in mathematics, the physical and biological sciences, medicine, the social sciences and humanities, business, government, public affairs and the arts.
Among its fellows are more than 200 Nobel Prize laureates and 100 Pulitzer Prize winners.
The academy continues to help set the national agenda for research and analysis in the arts and sciences. Major academy projects have focused on the changing nature and needs of higher education and research, the well-being of the humanities in the United States and their central role in assuring the vitality of our cultural life, the emerging challenges of scientific and technological advances, geoglobal politics, population and the environment and the welfare of children.