5 questions with… Distinguished University Professor, AAAS board member Cynthia Beall

Cynthia BeallWhen she joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as a graduate student in 1970, Cynthia Beall considered it a means of earning her badge in science; in fact, it was one of her first acts of graduate school.

Now, 45 years later, she will leave her mark on the organization that played an integral role in her career as member of the AAAS Board of Directors.

Launched 150 years ago, AAAS remains the world’s largest scientific society, bringing together an international network of scientists and like-minded individuals to advance science, engineering and innovation through communication, research, education and international cooperation. Among its fellows are more than 200 Nobel Prize laureates and 100 Pulitzer Prize winners.

“It’s been so exciting to see how science has changed, how the questions we’re asking in some ways are very similar and very different,” Beall, now Distinguished University Professor and the S. Idell Pyle Professor of Anthropology, said.

Within the science community, Beall said, the social sciences tend to be forgotten. As a physical anthropologist, she’s glad to represent social sciences on the board.

“We can be scientific—and should be,” she said, stressing that social sciences tackle critical questions.

Over the years, she believes, the scientific community has grown to accept the realization that social sciences are ingrained in some of the biggest societal challenges, including climate change, epidemics and the vaccine debate.

AAAS is particularly interested in scientists who conduct international research, which encompasses the work Beall does studying human adaption to high-altitude hypoxia, particularly in Andean, Tibetan and East African highlanders.

As part of her research, Beall works to understand how indigenous people adapt and evolve to low oxygen availably at such high altitudes.

Perhaps Beall’s prominence in her research area is even more impressive because she didn’t actively chose to study high altitude anthropology in the first place. Instead, Beall came to study the topic simply because that was the area of emphasis she encountered as a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University. Because many of the faculty members in the anthropology department focused their research on the topic, she did as well, and it led to key discoveries.

While it was long believed that highlanders biologically adapted to the stress low oxygen levels placed on their bodies, Beall uncovered that adaptions differed between populations, particularly Andeans and Tibetans.

Beall discovered that Tibetans have a special variant of the EPAS1 gene, which all humans have. However, Tibetans have a version that allows for a healthy amount of hemoglobin in their blood.

She frequently makes appearances to talk about her research. For the annual AAAS meeting in February, she organized a special session on how evolutionary biology impacts medicine and public health. The session, to be held on Feb. 14, will feature six speakers from such institutions as Harvard and Princeton universities.

Learn more about the session at aaas.confex.com/aaas/2016/webprogram/Session11937.html.

While Beall spends a significant amount of time abroad for her research, here at home in Cleveland, she’s made an impact as well. In fact, she has helped to organize Science Café Cleveland, an informal monthly public discussion about current science issues.

Get to know Beall better in this week’s five questions.

1. What is your proudest accomplishment?

My fieldwork around the world with a whole variety of people. I am grateful to the thousands of people have extended hospitality, food, shelter, fuel and participation. In some remote rural villages and nomad camps, people had not seen westerners before. They had never before been asked to blow into tubes to measure their lungs or stand on scales to measure their weight. Imagine how brave they were!

2. If you could do anything you wanted for a day, what would you do?

Provide clean water and sanitation to as many high-altitude natives as possible.

3. Who would you want to play you in a movie of your life?

I would not want anyone to make a movie of my life.

4. If you could go back in time to tell your childhood self something, what would you say?

I would say, “Yes, you too can make a discovery.” Back then, I thought we already knew everything, but now I know we don’t.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

It’s the collegiality among the faculty, staff and students of the CWRU community. For instance, faculty respect each other’s interests and talents and are responsive to informational, technical and practical questions from outside their fields.