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ASU anthropologist receives AAAS award for research on human relationships

Portrait of ASU Associate Professor Robin Nelson.

Robin Nelson, associate professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

October 05, 2023

Robin Nelson is a biocultural biological anthropologist at Arizona State University who is well known and celebrated by students for her courses and is acclaimed for her research. 

The associate professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change is also being recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with the 2024 Robert W. Sussman Award for “her outstanding contributions to understanding human relationships and their evolutionary impact.”

“I am deeply honored to receive this award,” Nelson said. “In academe, we are often working away on a set of research questions without any expectation of reward or even acknowledgment. We pursue our areas of inquiry because they are theoretically or methodologically intriguing. To have one’s peers acknowledge this effort is incredibly rewarding and humbling. Truthfully, it inspires me to redouble my efforts exploring questions of human behavior, sociality and health.”

ASU News talked with Nelson about her work and the award.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: AAAS acknowledges your contributions to understanding human relationships and their evolutionary impact. Can you talk about your work in this area and the research you are passionate about? 

Answer: I am a biocultural biological anthropologist whose work explores the relationship between social and kin networks and individual health outcomes. I am currently developing a project exploring experiences of social support, psychosocial stress, adult health and child growth and development in Black populations in the greater Toronto area, Canada. I am also working with colleagues exploring transgenerational community building and health outcomes amongst farmers in Texas. My previous work explored the relationship between caretaking strategies, residential context and child health outcomes in Jamaica. With this work, I have two aims: one, to explore how one’s experience of their social life and embeddedness in kin networks correlates to embodied health, and two, to test and refine the theories that we use to study the core features of human sociality, and by extension human evolution. 

All of my work has been completed while in conversation and collaboration with community members and colleagues. I am grateful to everyone for trusting me with their knowledge and supporting me as I work to refine my research. I would like to specifically thank colleagues who took the time to nominate me for this award for their belief in and support of my work.

Q: Did Robert Sussman have any influence on your research or work? 

A: Bob Sussman was a scholar whose expertise spanned many topics ranging from primatology to theoretical analyses of the race concept. He allowed himself to be a big thinker, drawing broad analytic connections. As a grad student and then junior scholar, I knew him as a senior scholar who was deeply engaged in his work while remaining kind and generous in spirit. Despite his status in the field, he was accessible. His work on race spoke to his understanding that untangling this social ill was part of our legacy and responsibility as biological anthropologists. Because of him and scholars like him, I am encouraged to engage with hard, theoretically anchored research questions while always centering engagement with fellow scholars, students and community members. 

Q: What courses are you teaching this semester that you feel embody this award or the goal of leading efforts to advance equity and redress historical harms in the field of anthropology? 

A: I am currently teaching Evolutionary Medicine and Global Health at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In these courses, we explore the intersections of the human evolutionary legacy and contemporary global health challenges. With every reading and lecture, the class engages with knotty issues ranging from vaccine hesitancy to maternal morbidity. I hope that students leave these courses with a greater understanding of the kinds of structural violence that limit access to lifelong health and with broadened perspectives and new ideas about the ways that their careers can positively impact the lives of others.

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