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ASU grad, a former zoo employee, explores how humans connect with animals

A woman in a red jacket smiling in front of a river.

Cassandra Lyon

April 27, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.W

While some people perceive science to be all facts and numbers, that is hardly true for Cassandra Lyon, a recent PhD graduate from ASU's biology and society program, whose care shines through her work. 

In her dissertation, Lyon investigated how zoos navigate anthropomorphism, or the act of assigning human attributes to non-human things. 

“Anthropomorphism is just part of the way we interact with the world, particularly other animals,” Lyon says.  

But many animal behavior researchers have denounced anthropomorphism, saying that it prevents humans from truly understanding other creatures. Lyon came away from her dissertation with a more nuanced view: though anthropomorphism should not be unconditionally promoted, it can be a useful tool in helping zoo visitors connect with animals and get invested in their wellbeing, and ultimately, their conservation. 

“I’ve always admired the creativity of Cassi’s research, and the nuance she brings to the question of how we should see and understand zoo animals,” says her PhD advisor, Ben Minteer, “Her work makes us think more carefully about their worlds, especially the often shaky assumptions we carry with us through the zoo turnstiles. And because Cassi cares so deeply about improving animal lives, both in zoos and beyond, I’m a little more hopeful for their future.” 

Lyon also cares about other people just as deeply as she cares for animals, something that’s driven her to spend much of her PhD doing community service. In her last year, Lyon served as vice president of the e-board for the School of Life Sciences.

Over the years, she’s also led graduate student recruitment, coordinated student events and designed educational material for Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots program.

In her spare time, she would up at 5 a.m. every Saturday to volunteer with Robinson Ranch, a horse therapy service, and she also works as a crisis counselor providing anonymous support over the phone for people in mental health crises. 

Before pursuing a PhD, Lyon worked at Disney's Animal Kingdom, an experience that pushed her to ask deeper questions about how humans connect with animals in her PhD. Now, she hopes to return to working with zoos in someway, where she can keep working to connect people to animals, and inspiring others to care. 

Question: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?  

Answer: When the weather is good, it’s the outside tables at Hayden. When it’s a lot hotter, I like my office –– it’s fun in there.  

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: There’s lots of times that I felt I needed to put myself or my work in a box, or fit in certain “scientific parameters,” to make myself and my work seem valid in our department. Looking back, I wish I had just leaned into it more ... rather than trying to make my work seem palatable to scientists. So, I just think, to anyone, whether they’re doing bench lab work or not, maybe they have other things they’re interested in, like science communication or social impacts research — explore that. Your PhD is really whatever you want; your dissertation is truly just defined by you and the people in your committee.  

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: I came to ASU to work with Ben (Minteer), because he does interesting work that no one else does, and looks at really complex things and embraces them, which is super cool. I never regretted that decision. He’s the main reason that my advice is to lean in and try new stuff, because he was so willing to do that ... I’m really grateful to him because he showed me you can do different things and still fit in and still be valued by your community.  

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