Dr. Cynthia Beall began her education with a B.A. in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. As an undergraduate she was interested in evolution and ecology. In a 2004 interview with the National Academy of Sciences, she indicated that she became interested in human adaptation during her senior year while taking Physiological Adaptability in the Department of Anthropology as a distribution requirement, saying she’d “found [her] calling” by happenstance. In 1972 she completed her M.A. and in 1976 her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University under Paul Baker, one of the founders of the field of Human Adaptability. Her dissertation was entitled “The Effects of High Altitude on Growth, Morbidity and Mortality of Peruvian Infants.”
In 1976 she began teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and has remained there ever since. In 1982 she was promoted to Associate Professor, and became full Professor in 1987. In 1994 she became the S. Idell Pyle Professor of Anthropology, and in 2010 she became the Distinguished University Professor. She also has secondary appointments as Professor of Anatomy and Professor of Global Health and Diseases at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, as Research Associate in Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and as Adjunct Staff in the Department of Pathobiology at the Lerner Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
She has trained one student, John Blangero.
Her research has focused on human adaptation to high altitude. Over the course of her career, she has studied Andean, East African, and Asian high altitude populations, living above 10,000 feet above sea level. Her studies seek to determine the varied genetic and developmental adaptations these indigenous populations may have evolved in order to combat the stresses associated with living in hypoxic high altitude environments.
Early studies up to the 1970s of human adaptation to high altitude hypoxia focused entirely on Andean Aymara, whose adaptations to high altitude include increased hemoglobin concentration, large barrel chests, and large lungs. At the end of the 1970s she was able to begin studying Tibetans living in Nepal, and she found that the high altitude native Tibetans did not share the same traits as the Andeans. Rather, they had adapted physiologically differently. Tibetans seem to have increased respiration, have a brisk hypoxic ventilatory response, and very high levels of nitric oxide, a vasodilator that increases blood flow to combat low environmental oxygen concentration. Later studies by Beall and colleagues have suggested that Ethiopian high altitude natives have developed a third pattern of adaptation to high altitude hypoxia because, unlike the other two populations, Ethiopians do not appear to be hypoxic.
She was elected as Member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1996 and served as chair in 2011, as Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1997, as Member in the American Philosophical Society in 2001, and as Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013. In 2009 she received the Franz Boas Distinguished Achievement Award, and in 2011 received the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds professional membership in the American Anthropological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Physical Anthropologists, Association for Anthropology and Gerontology, Human Biology Association, International Mountain Medicine Society, Sigma Xi, and the Society for the Study of Human Biology. She was also the co-founding editor of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology.