ASU faculty who inspire: Kaye Reed

August 09, 2022 · 2 min read · By ASU Online
When President’s Professor Kaye Reed went back to college, she discovered her passion for paleoanthropology and sharing knowledge with others. As a faculty member at Arizona State University, her career includes both. 

Discovering her passion for anthropology

At age 35, Kaye Reed decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree. She thought this accomplishment would advance her career, but had no idea it would lead her down a new path entirely. After taking one anthropology course, Reed changed her major and the rest was history.

When Reed discovered anthropology, it was the first time she realized what it meant for humans to have ancestors. While she was familiar with evolution as a concept, it fascinated her to learn about the bigger picture. Rather than focusing on bones as historical objects, Reed took interest in human origins in the context of their environment, including species’ habitats and animal neighbors. She wondered how human ancestors turned into beings with the ability to film someone or talk on the phone. When considering technology in the context of human evolution, Reed asked questions like:

  • When did we start hunting? 
  • When did we start making tools?
  • What was our thought process? 
  • How big was our brain then? 
  • How did this lead to the technology of an iPhone?

As Reed graduated, these questions remained top of mind and she was eager to continue learning about human origins and evolution. When asked what she wanted to do with her life, she immediately replied that she would go to graduate school. While Reed hadn’t thought about it much before, she knew her passion for research and curiosity about evolution made graduate school a natural next step.

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In this installment of Beyond the Screen, Kaye Reed discusses her passion for anthropology and how the study of human evolution is beneficial to understanding climate change.

Traveling the world as a paleoanthropologist

In addition to teaching biological anthropology and anthropological research, Reed works as a paleoanthropologist. Her research has taken her to Patagonia in South America and cave sites in Europe. However, her main focus is finding human ancestor fossils in African desert landscapes, such as Ethiopia and South Africa.

While in Ethiopia, Reed’s team found the oldest mandible, or jawbone, of the genus Homo. At 2.8 million years old, this jawbone belongs to a species older than humans. As a paleoanthropologist, Reed doesn’t stop at finding and examining bones, she studies the context of how and where the species lived. 

“I'm not the person that describes the skull, because it's a skull. What I do is I look at the context of where that species lived, what kind of habitat it lived in, what kind of animals existed with it and reconstruct those changes through time,” explained Reed.


Looking into the past for clues about the future

Working as a paleoanthropologist allows Reed to ask big questions about the history of humans. She hopes her research contributes to how society prepares for future challenges in the natural world.

“I think that examining the past carefully about the things that happened to our ancestral species, and even Homo sapiens in the past 10,000 or 100,000 years, helps us prepare for the future,” said Reed.

Reed pointed to warnings about climate change as an example of this. She explained that human ancestors possibly went extinct as a result of climate change in the past, and it could happen again. While humans and technology have evolved, natural processes remain the same. As an added layer of complexity, the world now has billions of people, meaning climate challenges can bring conflict. Paleoanthropologists can’t stop climate change, but their research can direct how society takes action to slow it down.


Bringing the study of human origins online

Reed feels connected to ASU Online students because many of them also took nonlinear paths to pursue their degrees. She recognizes that no matter their backgrounds, her students are there for a one-of-a-kind learning experience.

Just as our human ancestors evolved, so did Reed and her teaching strategy. When Reed began teaching anthropology online, she wondered how she’d bring an impactful lab experience to the virtual space. However, over time, Reed began incorporating 3D images into her curriculum, allowing  online learners to gain hands-on experience without setting foot in a lab.

“We still do labs. We still do the bones. It's just that they're looking at 3D models. And to be fair, a lot of people do research now with 3D models. It's not a big stretch,” said Reed.


Your degree, your way

Reed’s journey demonstrates that there aren’t any rules when it comes to following your dreams. Her experience also shows that you don’t have to have the answers when you start.

ASU Online offers you the opportunity to study humanity with both a BA in anthropology and a BS in anthropology, plus more than 20 other undergraduate social sciences degrees. You’ll learn from world-class faculty looking to make a difference.

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