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ASU bioarchaeologist discovers puzzling burial at ancient Sudanese gate.
Bioarchaeologist Brenda Baker working on new journal that aims to bridge gaps.
May 2, 2017

Amidst fieldwork, ASU researcher helps boost local schools and preserve ancient sites

Zalabiyya is a dish of fried dough pieces served with sugar or honey. In Sudan, it’s a common offering at afternoon tea, and Brenda Baker goes to tea in Sudan a lot.

“You get to a point where it’s like, ‘Oh no, I can’t eat any more zalabiyya,’” she said with a groan. But she doesn’t make these trips to learn about the cuisine.

Baker is an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a bioarchaeologist with the school's Center for Bioarchaeological Research, which means she studies how ancient people lived by examining their cemetery sites and bones.

Although much of her research focuses on Sudan’s past peoples, Baker also spends a lot of her time making connections with the country’s current residents. Part of it is just being friendly, but it’s also about working with local communities to preserve the area’s numerous, valuable archaeological sites.

Baker first began working in Sudan a decade ago, in an effort to help record and salvage archaeological data from a region along the Nile before it was submerged by a huge dam. Today, she faces new problems. After the dam was built, the surrounding area experienced a huge boom in agriculture. While some archaeological sites are being now plowed over for farming, others are being destroyed as new neighborhoods, schools and roads expand outward.

She and her team have a lot of ground to cover. Baker’s own project area is around 60 square miles, but includes more than 200 identified archaeological sites, which range from the Stone Age to modern historic times.

“I feel like I’m in a race to try to record as much as I can before it is lost to development,” she said.

For all the team’s work, however, what these sites truly need is a solution for their protection in the long term. Accomplishing that goal requires increasing local awareness, and building trust is the first step.

To be a good neighbor

When looking to rally support, there is often no better place to start than at home, even if it’s your home away from home.

During each field season, Baker and her team rent mudbrick houses in the local community, which requires them to be neighborly. In Sudan, this means giving and accepting invitations to tea, as well as organizing a big party at the end of each trip to thank the community for hosting them. Much like a neighborhood barbeque here in the U.S., the host provides the main course — in this case, a sheep — and the neighbors loan chairs and dishes.

“It takes time away from the work to do that, but I would much rather be a good neighbor and have this kind of outreach to show that we’re not arrogant or trying to take advantage of them,” Baker said. “We want to show them that we’re good people.”

In this way, her team not only gains more opportunities to talk to community members about the value of archaeological sites, but also the ability to benefit from local knowledge. Neighbors often know if there are other sites nearby and are likely tip off the team if they stumble upon a new one.

photo of Baker having tea at a workman’s house
ASU archaeologist Brenda Baker and her team visit a neighbor's home. Tea and bowls of zalabiyya are on the tables in the center. Photo courtesy of Brenda Baker

Baker has also formed close relationships with the local workers that she hires each season. Some of them have worked with her for two or three years, and about five of them have worked with her for more than a decade. In the past, she has helped some of them get access to health care, while they, in turn, patiently help her improve her Arabic.

“We really have friends when we go back, because we’ve grown to know these guys,” she said.

Getting to that point was hard-won in some ways, but fulfilling in the end.

“Several who initially just wanted the work really got interested once they saw the kinds of things we were finding and how excited we were about it,” Baker said. “They became very proud of what they were doing and the knowledge and skills they were developing.”

Many of the workers have developed into skilled archaeologists, and Baker often has them work with new students.

“I tell the students, ‘Follow their lead and you can learn from them,’” she said.

Inadvertently, these workers have become their own form of outreach, as their pride compels them to share their work. Spontaneous mini-lectures to curious bystanders at the dig sites are a frequent occurrence.

“They often want to know if [a skeleton] is a man or a woman and how old it is,” Baker said. People are also fascinated by practical details, like the healed bone of an ancient woman showing that she broke a leg when she was young, but survived the injury.

“I think that’s the kind of thing that they can relate to their own experiences,” she said.

Baker also developed her own local educational tool — a brochure with photos of sites and artifacts that show the evidence of the area’s ancient history — after discovering that students in Sudan aren’t taught their ancient history until high school, which is an educational level that most never attain.

The brochures were initially just handed out to the schools close by, but soon even the parents were clamoring for copies.

The things that people remember

Interacting with the nearby communities gave Baker greater insight into their needs and presented her with opportunities to make lasting impacts outside of work.

She describes one day during her last field season when her team was invited for tea at the home of an impoverished family. The children in this family had, for three seasons, run out to greet the team as they drove back from their dig sites each afternoon. Yet their current residence was little more than a lean-to structure, and Baker learned from the parents that their house had been destroyed in a bad rainstorm.

“I wanted to help them,” Baker said. “These kids have been waving to us almost every single day. I’ve watched the little boy grow up from a baby to a toddler.”

To the parents’ shock, she decided to give them some of her own money to help them rebuild.

Baker and her team also regularly give supplies to nearby schools. Most recently, they were able to donate a large sum to three different schools for a connection to the new electrical grid. One of these, installed fans and lights in its classrooms so that it can continue to operate during sandstorms. But the school’s use of the leftover funds was a special surprise.

The school, which is visible from the houses where the team stays, was formerly a “brown building on a brown landscape.” So Baker was astonished to walk out one day and find it painted a bright turquoise.

“It gives you some color in a sea of brown,” she said, smiling.

In the future, Baker plans to raise additional funds so school leaders can buy a water tank and build a wall to better protect the building from sandstorms.

A bit of a mystery

When she isn’t investing in nearby communities, Baker continues to make fascinating archaeological discoveries. In the 2015 field season, her team examined a 1960s satellite photo that appeared to show a large structure near the Nile riverbank. On modern satellite photos, however, the structure is invisible, because it’s now surrounded by date palm groves.

When the team went to check things out for themselves, they found an ancient fort known locally as “El-Housh,” or “The Enclosure,” with three of its four walls still standing. The distinctive architecture suggested it was built sometime in the first few centuries A.D. Getting the landowner’s permission to excavate the site was a little tricky, but Baker’s tried-and-true method of having tea and explaining her archaeological work won him over. In describing what the fort had looked like long ago, he mentioned a gateway, providing the key to a baffling discovery.

While searching for the gateway, Baker’s team found a burial underneath an exterior wall of the fort. She describes the remains as having been placed in a foundation trench beneath the gateway — a type of burial that she had never before encountered or heard of in all her time in the region. The reasoning behind its placement is a puzzle, as the individual could have been an offering, an honored member of the community or an enemy doomed to be trodden upon for eternity.

“Obviously, it’s very purposeful, but we have no indication that this person was treated differently in death, other than being in this position and not in a formal cemetery,” Baker said. “It’s a bit of a mystery at this point.”

In the future, Baker and her team will excavate more of the fort and look for a second gateway opposite the one found in 2015 (she believes it’s possible there is another burial there as well). She also wants to submit a bone sample for radiocarbon dating, which will confirm when the fort was constructed. Baker hopes that this discovery will prompt other archaeologists to take a closer look at gateways, as it could be a regional practice that researchers are simply unaware of at present.

Though she will not be returning to Sudan this season, Baker still has plenty to keep her busy in her other place of work: the laboratory. After three field seasons in a row, she has mountains of material from Sudan to process and analyze, including the remains from El-Housh.

Once the spring 2017 semester is over at ASU, Baker will also manage as co-editor-in-chief the publication of the premiere issue of Bioarchaeology International, a new journal that aims to bridge the gap between the archaeological focus on the context of a burial and the bioarchaeological focus on skeletal remains, furthering her work that often starts with tea and plates of zalabiyya.

Learn more about Baker’s Bioarchaeology of Nubia Expedition (BONE) project here.

 

Top photo: Baker's team begins working on a cemetery from the Kerma period (2,500-1,500 BC). Photo courtesy of Brenda Baker

Mikala Kass

communications assistant , School of Human Evolution and Social Change

480-727-6577

 
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May 2, 2017

Hard work and persistence add up to degrees, great jobs for these ASU math graduates

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in the sciences, especially in mathematics. Some researchers believe one factor that contributes is what they call the “brilliance effect” — the beliefs that natural brilliance or knack for a subject drives success, rather than hard work or persistence.

These six young women graduating with degrees in mathematics from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences want to help change that perception. They agree that hard work and perseverance is needed to be successful at math, and at life. By putting in the effort and challenging themselves, they discovered a new way of thinking.

Their hard work is paying off. These top math graduates have earned great jobs right out of college, including working in a CalTech brain lab studying decision-making, becoming a life pricing analyst at USAA insurance, working as an analyst with health-care consulting firm Optumas, and teaching mathematics at McClintock High School. Several others will continue their education pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford and working toward an advanced degree in pharmacy.

They hope to inspire the next generation of young girls to work hard as they pursue mathematics or whatever subjects they are interested in.

Grace Kennedy

Grace Kennedy

Major: Actuarial Science (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences)
Awards and Scholarships earned: New American University Scholar – President's Award, Joaquin Bustoz Memorial Mathematics Scholarship, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona Scholarship, Arizona Power Authority Scholarship, Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention
Hometown: Apache Junction, Arizona ("I love the Superstition Mountains. ASU always feels like home too especially because 'A' Mountain is a piece of volcanic rock from the mountain range of my hometown.")

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study math?

Answer: I realized I wanted to "do something" with math in second grade. I viewed math as a means for empowerment, since anyone who was good at math in my elementary school was treated like they were amazing and awesome. I actually didn't focus much on math until this "aha" moment. Luckily for me,  that moment occurred early on. I put in a great deal of effort to improve myself because I wanted to be the best at math. When school would go out for summer I was the weird kid who said, "Mom, can we go to the bookstore? I need a math textbook on [insert next math class here]." 

Five years later (yep, 12 years old), I found that something. I wanted to be an actuary. I guess I am not the typical kid, but I am passionate about my goals and apparently know how to get there.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Like I said in my "aha" moment, I wanted to be the best at math. I needed a change of perspective and I got it my first summer at ASU. I was in the Joaquin Bustoz Math Science Honors Program (JBMSHP) during high school. Basically the JBMSHP is math camp. It was the best thing I could possibly have done with my summers. I made so many friends and a lot of them were better at math than me, but that didn't mean I wasn't amazing and awesome — it meant I could learn from them. I later learned this is called "growth mentality."

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU has a wide range of opportunities because it is a large university. Also, the low tuition made higher education accessible to me since I was paying for school on my own. The most significant reason was ASU was going to have an actuarial science program by the time I started my sophomore year. I found out about the program while I was taking a summer class through JBMSHP.

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

A: Find your passion, pursue it like a goal and tell the world. For instance, I was/am passionate about math; I made it a goal by focusing in on a career involving math (actuarial science); and I told everyone with my actions and my words. People helped me get where I am because I told them what I wanted. I honestly believe people want to help, but you need to help them help you and that can be as simple as telling them what you need help with. I also am passionate about animal welfare; I made it a goal by learning to be a service and therapy dog trainer; and I make it a point to show people the importance of the cause.

It is important to also be willing to try other things because those experiences shape you. While I knew I wanted to be an actuary, I was also involved in the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (NJROTC) at my high school. I was dedicated and became commanding officer. Even though I knew I wasn't the right fit for military life, I wanted to help the people that were going to be protecting us. That drive to help military personnel helped me to find work at USAA upon graduation as a life pricing actuary.

Q: Why is math a great major to pursue?

A: Math is a great major because math is awesome and amazing and so are the people who study it. Also, mathematics isn't like a lot of other majors. Math is a tool and can help any degree program by applying the knowledge gained to it. I am not just saying applied math is all math since pure math is where new thought processes develop.

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

A: Noble library really early in the morning (opens at 7 a.m.) is the best place to study since no one is there even during finals week. Once it hits 10 a.m. Noble gets a little noisy, so I like to take a break and go to the lawn near the University Club, Old Main and Language & Literature buildings. It is nice there because the sprinklers have been off just long enough that you can sit in the grass, it is just far enough away from the street that the vehicle noise isn't obtrusive, and from being at the library for the last three hours all your technology is charged.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am going to move to San Antonio, Texas, with my fiancé to pursue a career at USAA as a life pricing analyst.  

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I have so many causes I would like to help, such as food and clean water insecurity for children, rainforest depletion, veteran affairs for PTSD patients, and math education. I would use the $40 million to raise awareness and recruit investors so I can raise money for all of these causes. ... I guess I live by the "aim for the stars and you'll at least make it to the moon" mentality.

 

Alexandra Porter

Alexandra Porter

Majors: BS Mathematics (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences), BS Computer Science (School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering)
Minor: Music Performance (Percussion)
Awards: Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, Computing Research Association Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Finalist, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study math?

A: When I started research in theoretical computer science during sophomore year of college, I realized my interest in math was as strong as my interest in CS and I wanted it to be bigger part of my education.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Taking Intro to Theoretical Computer Science made me realize that CS can be more than programming.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU based on Barrett, the quality of the CS department, and the overall variety of opportunities at such a big school.

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

A: Explore new topics in your major or otherwise; you may find something else you want to study that connects to your current interests.

Q: Why is math a great major to pursue?

A: As a major, math has something for every interest, whether in pure theory or applied subjects.

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

A: The music building, for practicing, seeing performances and studying in the courtyard.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Attend Stanford for PhD in Computer Science.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle creating renewable energy.

 

Sandy Tanwisuth

Koranis Sandy Tanwisuth

Majors: BS Mathematics with concentration in Statistics (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences), BS Psychology (Department of Psychology)
Certificate: Symbolic, Cognitive and Linguistic Systems
Awards and scholarships earned: André Levard Mackey Scholarship, Jerry Wistosky Memorial Scholarship
Hometown: Bangkok, Thailand

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study math?

A: Since I started participating in several research laboratories, I knew that I need advanced mathematical knowledge to truly understand decision-making process and that’s why I chose to pursue a math degree.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Throughout my four years here at ASU, I’ve learned several things and the wisdoms I gained gradually changed my perspective on life. One of the most important changes I notice is that I became a hard worker and a believer in hard-working since it will eventually pay off.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: One of the many reasons I chose to attend ASU is because of the wide range of research opportunities. Since young, I have had a passion toward doing a research in decision making. This will allow me to understand how we as a human make decisions and how can we utilize artificial intelligences to aid our decision-making processes.

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

A: Work hard! It will pay off.

Q: Why is math a great major to pursue?

A: Personally, the knowledge in mathematics enables me to understand previous literature in the fields and allows me to come up with an idea of new cognitive model. Advanced knowledge in mathematics plays a very crucial role in understanding several phenomena.

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

A: For studying, I liked to go to my lab space at Decision Neuroscience Lab, College Avenue Commons and the Math Community Center in the Wexler math building. For hanging out, I loved to go to Starbucks MU, Secret Garden and Barrett Lounge.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Starting this summer, I will be working at O’Doherty’s Lab, California Institute of Technology. During this year, I will apply to PhD programs related to Computational Neuroscience/ Statistical Machine Learning and/or related fields to pursue a research career.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Probably education, since solving this problem will lead to solving several other problems. 

 

Taylor Patten

Taylor Patten

Major: BS Mathematics (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences)
Awards and scholarships earned: New American Scholar, ASU Moeur Recipient
Hometown: Phoenix

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study math?

A: I realized I wanted to study math sometime in high school. It was the only class that I always enjoyed going to.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I’ve learned that I should have more confidence in myself academically. Just because you feel like you aren’t very good at a certain subject doesn’t mean you won’t surprise yourself.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: People come from all over the world to attend ASU; I was lucky enough to be a native Arizonan.

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

A: My advice to anyone still in school is to continue to pursue your goals, no matter what problems or difficulties you encounter along the way. The right to pursue an education is truly a right to be valued and honored.

Q: Why is math a great major to pursue?

A: Math is a crucial element in so many areas that are vital to our society. For me, it has always been something that I have found challenging and enjoyable.

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

A: My favorite spot on campus was the lower level of the Memorial Union. I’ve spent countless hours in there studying and laughing with my friends.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m continuing my education at ASU in order to complete the prerequisites necessary to pass the PCAT as well as satisfy the requirements necessary for entrance into a three-year accelerated program to become a Doctor of Pharmacy.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would love to help find a cure for cancer or spread awareness about global warming.

 

Karla Gonzalez

Karla Gonzalez

Major: BS Mathematics with concentration in Secondary Education (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences)
Awards and scholarships earned: Ioana Elise Hociota!!! Memorial Mathematics Scholarship, Charles & Christine Michael Scholarship, and New American University Scholarship
Hometown: Tempe

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study math?

A: I decided I wanted to be a math major when I was in high school and stayed after school one of the days with my math teacher, and she showed me how to prove a mathematical concept and I was just in awe. I wanted to do these discoveries more and more.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I always thought math was about getting an "answer," but it is much more than that; it is a way of thinking and problem solving. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I knew there would be a large community of people that I could connect with and share my ideas with who would be more than willing to help me grow.

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

A: I would tell those still in school to stay focused and positive because even though things get overwhelming life is about learning and growing and you will learn so much about yourself while in school.

Q: Why is math a great major to pursue?

A: Math is in everything. Math is a way of thinking. If you truly want to exercise your brain and be able to think in a new way, majoring in math is the way to go. 

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

A: I loved the breezeway in the Wexler math building, as well as Hayden. Those were my sanctuaries. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have currently been hired to teach math at the high school level at McClintock High School in Tempe.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle starvation. No one deserves to die of hunger and malnutrition.

 

Julie Tang

Julie Tang

Major: Actuarial Science (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences)
Awards and scholarships earned: National Merit Scholar, New American Scholar
Hometown: Chandler, Arizona

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study math?

A: I was good at math, enjoyed math and finally understood by sophomore year that my greatest utilitarian value in society would be maximizing my efficiency and finding something in math.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: The hardest thing to learn is the emotional labor it takes to make and maintain friendships.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Scholarships made ASU free, and I was not self-confident enough as a little senior in high school to go to Berkeley all on my own.

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

A: Finding (making, working for) a supportive system of friends might save your grades or your life!

Q: Why is math a great major to pursue?

A: With some reductionist reasoning, every STEM major is built on math. If you are a master of math, you can easily apply it to many fields.

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

A: Noble Library, where I am typing this now. The study rooms are very nice and accessible.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm going to Sweden and Iceland for two weeks with my older sister! Then I am starting my job at Optumas, a small health-care consulting firm in Scottsdale.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: The most frustrating issue I feel is the aggressive, willful ignorance or confirmation bias that plagues all of humanity. I feel there's not a single problem existing today that could not be solved by elevated rationality and consciousness of all humans. I honestly can't think of a single problem that plagues all of humanity that can be dented by just $40 million. I guess I'll give it to independent cancer research.

 

Top photo: Wexler Hall on the Tempe campus is home to the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication , School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

480-727-2468