Dr. Alyssa Crittenden is the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate College. She came to UNLV 12 years ago as an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts.
Dr. Crittenden says she is an anthropologist and human biologist. Her research focuses on the investigation of the relationship between human behavior, reproduction, and the environment (ecological, political, social). Her research foci include: the evolution of human diet, maternal and infant health and nutrition, cross-cultural birth practices, maternal-infant co-sleeping, and childhood.
The majority of Dr. Crittenden’s research over the past 20 years has focused on work she conducted among and with Hadza foragers of Tanzania, a small-scale population that still hunts and gathers for some of their diet. Her current projects explore ecological and social change and their impact on food and water insecurity and birth and child-rearing practices in the Hadza community. She conducts her research alongside members of the Hadza community and, increasingly, focuses her investigation on topics selected by the community. Additionally, she is also currently investigating cross-cultural mother-infant co-sleeping and breastfeeding practices, including in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
How did you get interested in this subject?
I initially became interested in anthropology, human biology, and human nutrition as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I conducted research as a volunteer in the laboratory of my then-professor, Dr. Adrienne Zihlman, who studied non-human primates and their biology. It was there that I discovered my intense passion for dietary adaptations.
In graduate school, at the University of California, San Diego, I realized that I was actually most interested in learning about how food helped to make us human – and I was specifically interested in the role that diet composition played in the evolution of our species. I wanted to know how the food that we ate in our past impacted the evolution of our brains, bodies, and behavior. This meant that I had to find ways to study human beings in a variety of social contexts who ate very different foods – which is what originally led me to Tanzania. The Hadza, at the time that I started my research in 2004, were still eating mostly wild foraged foods and lived in tightly knit social groups where distributed childcare was normative. It provided me an opportunity to explore different life ways as a way to better understand the aspects of our human nature that are shared across cultures.
After completing my Ph.D., I extended my study of the evolution of the human diet and went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at the UC San Diego School of Medicine in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. I studied a molecule called N-Glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc) that is found in most non-human mammals, but not humans. While humans cannot synthesize Neu5Gc (due to a mutation in the CMAH gene associated with the evolution of our species), trace amounts are still found in our bodies. Interestingly, this is because we eat animals in our diet, so small amounts show up in our systems, even though the gene to encode for production of Neu5Gc was eliminated in our evolutionary history long ago. As I am interested in all aspects of humans and their food, studying these trace amounts is fascinating because it allows us to investigate how the ingestion of Neu5Gc may lead to negative health outcomes.
Explain your transition from faculty member to Vice Provost for Graduate Education and dean of the Graduate College.
I am a full professor in the Department of Anthropology at UNLV. I was previously the graduate coordinator for my home department and the chair of the UNLV Graduate Council. I have always been passionate about graduate education, from the time that I was a graduate student. When the call went out for a new VPGE and dean of the Graduate College, I applied because I wanted to be part of continuing to build graduate education at UNLV. I am committed to breaking down barriers in access to higher education, and I wanted to work hard to provide opportunities for students like the ones that I was lucky enough to have. Neither one of my parents graduated from college. I worked full time and had to take out student loans to put myself through both my undergraduate and graduate education. I was lucky and, along the way, I had professors and university administrators who looked out for me, provided guidance, mentored me, and supported me in my dream to earn a Ph.D. and become a research scientist and professor at a major university. I want to pay it forward. UNLV is an educational institution that acts to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education, and I wanted to contribute to this mission.
What is your role as Vice Provost for Graduate Education and dean of the Graduate College?
In my current role as VPGE and dean of the Graduate College, I provide leadership for graduate education at UNLV. I am the principal academic and administrative officer of the Graduate College, which means that I must stay informed of initiatives and trends in graduate education nationally and internationally as well as oversee the academic progress of our 5,000+ graduate and professional students, their career and professional development, and the awarding of degrees at the graduate level. My team is also in charge of allocating and administering state support for graduate assistantships, developing graduate curricular policy with the Graduate Council and implementing that policy, and overseeing graduate assessment and benchmarking. We work with deans and faculty to develop new programs and work with alumni and community members to increase connections between UNLV and our broader community.
The role of vice provost functions as part of the provost’s academic and administrative staff. Duties include participating in regular meetings regarding issues in the Division of Academic Affairs, coordinating with university leadership to facilitate the mission of the University, and representing the University at external meetings. The VPGE and dean of the Graduate College reports to the senior vice provost for Academic Affairs.
How does your current role connect to research?
Graduate and professional students and postdoctoral fellows are the steam in the engine of research that is central to UNLV’s Carnegie R1 ranking. Research success is not only a key indicator of the impact of a university, but it is central to solving the world’s problems. Our graduate and professional students and postdocs are doing just that – through their research, they are working to make our communities, state, and world a better place.
My current role allows me to merge my love of research and discovery with my passion for socially just graduate education. The Graduate College team is actively working to create more opportunities to fund research and creative activity for our graduate and professional students and to provide them with the support, mentorship, and professional development opportunities that they need to succeed. My current role is central to the research infrastructure at UNLV because the Graduate College supports more than 175 graduate certificate, master’s, specialist, and doctoral programs that serve more than 5,000 graduate and professional students. Our goal is to cultivate a scholarly and creative community that celebrates the diversity of our campus community, supports UNLV’s unique blend of graduate programs, and amplifies research that advances our knowledge across all disciplines.
You were the recipient of the 2021 Conrad M. Arensberg Award from the American Anthropological Association.
It was an absolute honor to receive the 2021 Conrad M. Arensberg Award from the American Anthropological Association. This is the flagship association for anthropologists, and this national honor recognizes scholars whose work has advanced anthropology as a natural science. I was nominated by colleagues from institutions around the country and a former doctoral student. I was nominated for my work in ecology that combines methods of evolutionary anthropology, human behavioral ecology, and cultural anthropology to address fundamental questions about relationships between human behavior and environment. My work on diet composition was central to this nomination. I considered this an award jointly given to me and to my colleagues in Tanzania, the Hadza community who have welcomed me into their homes and to their dinner table for almost 20 years. As such, all funds from the award were donated to a small mutual aid organization, of which I am honored to be part of, called Olanakwe Community Fund, which supports the community’s efforts to gain educational sovereignty.
How will this impact your future research?
This award is motivation to continue researching the impacts of food and water insecurity on rural non- industrial communities with increasing market integration. Many popular media representations of Indigenous communities who practice mixed-subsistence food economies (like hunting and gathering combined with purchasing/trading for food) are based on inaccuracies that are often harmful to the communities themselves. Depicted as “natural” or part of our evolutionary past, such communities are often cut off from access to basic needs, such as reliable access to food and water. Studies working with communities to demonstrate how food and water insecurity impact mobility, health, and longevity are critical to overturning these myths and to better understanding how sustainable resource use is central to the health of all communities.
What is your favorite part of your job?
This is an easy one. Working with students!
What is your passion outside of work?
I love spending time with my family and friends. I also have two dogs (chihuahua and terrier mixes) and a flock of bantam chickens. Is sleeping a passion? If so, then I also select sleeping.
What is the most Vegas thing that you have done since moving to Nevada?
Eating! I love the restaurants in our city, and I like to try a variety of foods. The whole world comes to Vegas to eat … for good reason.