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Anthropologist prioritizes the people part of research

July 18, 2023

ASU assistant professor returns to Africa this summer to continue her study of ancient artifacts

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of Q&As highlighting Arizona State University researchers working around the world this summer. Read about a bioarcheologist in Cyprusmotorbike research in Vietnam and conserving jaguars in Costa Rica.

There’s a place in Tanzania called Kondoa that’s known for its ancient rock paintings that cover a granite cliff. The district overlooks the Maasai Steppe — a  semiarid grassland where giraffes, zebras and wildebeest roam freely.

It’s one of the places that Arizona State University anthropologist Kathryn Ranhorn is engaged in research this summer (the other is Kenya). The assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and research scientist with the Institute of Human Origins is there for a month studying the deep history of human evolution.

View of the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania

View of the Maasai Steppe from Ranhorn's tent near Kisese II rockshelter in Kondoa, Tanzania. Photo by Kathryn Ranhorn

Ranhorn considers herself an unconventional researcher. She is living out of a tent in rural areas for most of her stay. 

There she does her research alongside community members to better understand ancient artifacts, fossils and rock paintings. This, of course, requires lots of communication. 

Communication is a priority for Ranhorn, as are the relationships with the people she has met since her first trip to Africa in 2008. Ranhorn is fluid in multiple languages, including Swahili, and is learning Rangi, the local language spoken in Kondoa. 

ASU News checked in on Ranhorn to learn more about her research this summer.

Note: Answers may have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Question: What is the purpose of your trip to Africa this year? 

Answer: I’m here to help steward and document the deep history of human evolution in central Tanzania. With a paleontological and archaeological record spanning more than 2 million years, there is much to write home about. I am most interested in the last 500,000 years, which was an extraordinary time of technological innovation and environmental dynamism.

I study human behavior through tool use and primarily stone artifacts, which are abundant, as well as beads and ochres when they are present. My work centers around the question, "How did these humans organize their social lives?"

Screenshot of Google maps marking an area in Tanzania, Africa.

Kathryn Ranhorn is conducting archaeology work in Kondoa, Tanzania, this summer.

Q: How do you conduct your research — what does that entail?

A: I kind of have a reputation in the field for doing things a little differently. I've never seen "Indiana Jones" and have no intention to. I conduct my work by prioritizing people over publications — that is, cultivating relationships with the people who live near the sites and whose lives can be most impacted by our research. 

This entails learning multiple languages and lots of meetings with people. Community members from Machinjioni village and I have co-created a partnership with an agenda that is transparent and seeks to benefit everyone. 

We excavate together, study collections together and plan tourism and institutional development together. Each year, we hold a traditional ceremony at the site before starting work and often hold villagewide meetings to discuss findings. 

Mugshot of ASU anthropologist Kathryn Ranhorn

ASU Assistant Professor Kathryn Ranhorn

Q: What does your typical research day look like?

A: At our campsite, I lead a team meeting in Swahili, translating for the English speakers as I go, about daily announcements and the plan for the day. We hike about 15 minutes to the site — a rock shelter called Kisese II, where we are excavating. Once the team is going, I usually head back to camp to work on collections management and meet with community members. All my meetings are in Swahili and may involve government officials, farmers, teachers and school children. 

We break for lunch and then it's back to work, some of us excavating and some of us at the field lab with the collections.

My main role is facilitator, so I admittedly run around quite a bit and am somewhat difficult to pin down these days. My phone is my main research tool, where I take notes, photos, GPS points and voice recordings.

Q: Did you have any surprising discoveries this week?

ASU student researcher in a lab giving a thumbs up to the camera

Graduate student Sydney James analyzes the geochemistry of an obsidian artifact in the Deep History Lab in ASU's Walton Center for Planetary Health on the Tempe campus. Photo by Kathryn Ranhorn

A: Lately I have been most surprised at the way stone tools were made at the site — particularly the use of a volcanic glass called obsidian. The really fun thing about obsidian is we can use geochemistry to trace its movement from the volcanic source to the site. We have evidence to suggest that people were moving obsidian, either through long-distance trade networks or very complicated mobility strategies, over 250 kilometers (155 miles). ASU graduate student Sydney James is working on this research.

In Turkana (Kenya), I’m surprised by the existence and complexity of the later Pleistocene record that is largely unexplored, despite several decades of human evolution research in the area.

Q: What is the significance of your work? Why is it important?

A: I see my role as working for and with local and descendant communities in Tanzania and Kenya to help illuminate stories that are often ignored. Today crises like food and water insecurity, poverty and cultural erasure abound — these are not new problems. 

The archaeological record in Africa can help provide data-driven solutions to these challenges. One thing we know for sure: Humans did not evolve living in isolated groups; extensive collaborations across unrelated people was likely the norm.

By continually being reflexive about my role as a guest here, I’m working to build and maintain partnerships that are sustainable in a way that will ultimately no longer require my involvement. 

Q: What is it about your work that excites you — that drew you to it?

A: I am thrilled to learn how diverse human social institutions, as strange as they are, came to be. I was drawn to this work because, frankly, I had never learned about Africa in school and I wanted to know why. Thousands of languages are spoken here, empires rose and fell, and technologies that we still barely understand were invented here, by Africans. I am fascinated and humbled to be able to work here, combining the natural and social sciences, studying the human story while building lasting positive impacts.

Top photo: ASU Assistant Professor Kathryn Ranhorn works with team members from the Kondoa Deep History Partnership to excavate a site in Kondoa, Tanzania. Photo courtesy Kathryn Ranhorn

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News

Government lab joins forces with ASU to boost manufacturing power

July 18, 2023

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, is home to some of the world’s largest supercomputers, capable of doing simulations at scales large enough to solve national security challenges.

To expand the computers’ capabilities, LANL will tap into the expertise of faculty and students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University through a new multifaceted partnership. Exterior of the Los Alamos National Laboratory building. The National Nuclear Security Building at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The lab is collaborating with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University to advance manufacturing capabilities and workforce development for critical national security research. Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory Download Full Image

LANL’s mission to integrate research and development solutions and community engagement into their practices has led to a three-year, $3 million collaboration with the Fulton Schools to boost LANL’s manufacturing capabilities.

“At the end of the Cold War, the nation’s abilities to manufacture the key components in nuclear machinery were shut down,” says Steve Schrieber, a technical director in LANL’s Science, Technology and Engineering Office within the Weapons Production directorate. “Now, we at Los Alamos have been tasked with resurrecting manufacturing on a production scale. Because that’s not something we’ve historically done, we are looking forward to interacting with the Fulton Schools where there is a focus on manufacturing.”

LANL, one of 16 federally funded research and development centers, will collaborate with the School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks and the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, both part of the Fulton Schools, to advance the lab’s systems and processes to keep up with demand in three key areas of its robust plutonium facility: risk assessment modeling, virtual workforce training and recruitment efforts.

“We are searching for new technologies to integrate into our operations,” says Bob Putnam, director for the Technical Applications Office and chief production scientist at LANL’s plutonium facility. “From technologies in equipment to technologies in personnel training to technologies in operations, we need all of it, and ASU met our criteria.”

After meeting with LANL last fall, Tim Beatty, the Fulton Schools director of business development, says “it became clear that the Fulton Schools’ scale and breadth of engineering capabilities and curriculum presented a unique alignment with LANL’s long-term goals,” adding that “once LANL saw the various connections and the caliber of students and faculty we had to offer, the agreement came together very quickly.”

Turning risks into rewards

Assessing the potential for challenges that may affect a project can be difficult in LANL’s highly regulated environment, but it’s necessary to increase productivity and advance the level of the work.

“We work in a highly constrained environment, so the space in which we can get work done is sometimes small or nonexistent,” says Putnam, who was mentored by ASU Regents Professor Alexandra Navrotsky when he was a student at Princeton University. “We are being tasked with figuring out how to quantify risks in projects so that a risk-benefit assessment can be made.”

Binil Starly, director of the School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks, says he looks forward to seeing his faculty and students address LANL’s risk challenges by simulating the risks in ASU labs.

"These models can then be implemented into LANL’s manufacturing practices,” Starly says.

Putnam says he and his team look forward to formulating solutions to enable optimal productivity that will enhance the lab’s operations in this area through collaboration with faculty and students who have experience working in challenging environments.

Tech-forward workforce training

LANL expects to expand its workforce by 1,500 personnel each year for the next decade to keep up with growing demand. Putnam says training a workforce at this scale and in challenging environments in which it can take up to three years before an employee is fully independent has empowered LANL to integrate new technologies into its workforce training modules to efficiently accommodate the expansion.

"The exploration of initiatives and functionalities such as digital twinning, training simulations, online and remote learning for hands-on functions and scaling solutions for individual learners are just some of the exciting contributions this collaboration can achieve,” says April Martinez, a training manager at LANL who manages new employee training and workforce development.

The implementation of digital twinning technology and augmented reality and virtual reality, or AR and VR, “can allow new workers to experience actual LANL environments without stepping foot into the facility,” she says.

Fulton Schools faculty with experience in these areas will apply their knowledge to address the workforce training challenges and implement approaches in which they have already seen successes in their research collaborations with industry, such as the development of "physics-based virtual reality tools to train personnel in hard-to-access manufacturing spaces," Starly says.

“Our work is very high cost, low quantity and high quality, so the consequence for error can reach into the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars,” Putnam says. “Offering virtual training in this manner will alleviate errors and set our workforce up for success.”

Boosting recruitment and career readiness

To benefit from those with manufacturing and engineering talent and to conceptualize creative approaches to some of LANL’s challenges, the laboratory plans to recruit at Fulton Schools career fairs and sponsor three to five capstone projects each year for the duration of the partnership.

The scope of these capstone projects is yet to be determined, but will provide opportunities for engineering seniors to work on real industry challenges, preparing them for future careers. Schreiber says that if any capstone projects spin off into additional subprojects, LANL will financially support those endeavors.

“Capstone projects allow students the opportunity to try us out as well to see if we are a good career fit for them,” Schreiber says.

LANL has already hired three Fulton Schools graduates, and there’s potential for two more hires to be made in the coming months. Schreiber says the Fulton Schools’ hands-on approach is one of the main reasons the laboratory is attracted to students participating in capstone projects.

“We realize that currently we don’t have the correct or large enough workforce, but the workforce we are looking for is the one the Fulton Schools is training,” Schreiber says. “Hiring ASU students with expertise in the disciplines we need is the goal.”

Putnam expresses a similar outlook.

“These various areas of synergy between LANL and the Fulton Schools will support a mutual partnership,” he says, “and we look forward to seeing the benefits of this exciting collaboration.”

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Sr communications specialist, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts