• WHAT I DO

    Hi, I'm Athena Aktipis. I'm an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and co-Director of The Human Generosity Project. I study cooperation across systems from human sharing to cancer. I'm also the chair of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting; host of the new podcast, Zombified and author of the book The Cheating Cell: How evolution helps us understand and treat cancer from Princeton University Press.

    LAB

    I study cooperation across many systems in my lab including human sharing and microbial cooperation.

    FIELD

    I travel to fieldsites around the world to study how people cooperate especially during times of need.

    MODELS

    I use computational models to understand the fundamental principles underlying cooperation and test alternatives.

    IMPACT

    I apply my work to practical challenges from cancer prevention to developing new solutions to resource management problems.

  • Current projects

    I search for general principles of cooperation that manifest across diverse systems. To learn more about the research in my lab, visit AktipisLab.org.

    The Human Generosity Project

    A large focus of my work is studying cooperation in humans, focusing especially on helping behavior that occurs in times of need. I study food sharing, resource transfers, shared work and other forms of cooperation using diverse methods including human laboratory experiments, anthropological fieldwork and computational modeling. I also apply these principles to practical problems including resource management and disaster recovery. Learn more about these studies and more on The Human Generosity Project webpage.

    Cancer and Multicellular Cooperation

    Multicellular bodies are essentially societies of cells that must cooperate and coordinate to contribute most effectively to the fitness of the organism. Cancer represents a breakdown of this multicellular cooperation. In our lab we examine cancer through this lens using computational modeling and clinical collaborations. My work on this topic was recently covered in The New York Times article Cellular 'Cheaters' Give Rise to Cancer.

    Cooperation and Conflict

    In addition to studying human sharing and cancer, I study a variety of other systems that are governed by fundamental tensions between cooperation and conflict. This includes maternal-fetal conflict in microchimerism, a topic covered in a recent New York Times article A Pregnancy Souvenir: Cells That are Not Your Own based on our review paper, and the potential role of the microbiome in unhealthy eating behavior, also covered in The New York Times article Our Microbiome May Be Looking Out for Itself.

  • BIOGRAPHY

    I am a cooperation theorist, theoretical evolutionary biologist, and cancer biologist working at the intersection of these fields.  

    Reed College

    Psychology, BA

    In 2002 I graduated from Reed College in Portland, OR with two Commendations for Academic Excellence and membership in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

    University of Pennsylvania

    Psychology, MA

    Psychology, PhD

    I received a Masters Degree in Psychology from University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and my PhD in 2008. The topic of my dissertation was computational models of the evolution of cooperation.

    University of Arizona

    Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Post-doctoral Fellowship

    From 2008 to 2011 I was a Post-doctoral Fellow in the laboratory of John Pepper at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I began applying cooperation theory and evolutionary principles to cancer during this time, focusing on dispersal theory and the evolution of multicellularity.

    University of California San Francisco

    Research Scientist

    Co-founder Center for Evolution and Cancer (CEC)

    Director of Human and Social Evolution, CEC

    In 2011 I moved to UCSF to start the Center for Evolution and Cancer, the first center of its kind. During my time at UCSF, I began building my lab and evolution and cancer research program and continued my work on the evolution of cooperation.

    Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin

    Fellow

    I was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (also knows as the Wissenschaftskolleg or just 'Wiko') during the 2013-2014 academic year as part of a working group on Cancer Evolution. During this time my colleagues and I worked on fundamental questions about the nature of cancer and the role of evolution in shaping cancer progression and susceptibility.

    Arizona State University

    Associate Professor, Psychology

    Director, Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative

    Member, Center for Evolution and Medicine

    In 2014 I moved to Arizona State University in Tempe to take a position in the Department of Psychology. I am the founder and director of the Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative at ASU and I collaborate with diverse researchers from many different departments and centers to study the general principles underlying cooperation and conflict across systems.

  • MEDIA

    Coverage of my work in the news

    by Erin Blakemore
    The Washington Post

    3.21.20

    Is it time to ditch the war on cancer? Arizona State University professor Athena Aktipis says yes — and that it might be time to learn to live with the disease. That seemingly unthinkable statement is at the core of “The Cheating Cell,” her book on how evolution can help us understand and treat cancer.

    by Brianna Abbott
    The Wall Street Journal

    1.7.20

    “We don’t need to just look at killing tumor cells as the outcome,” said Dr. Aktipis, author of an upcoming book called “The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer.” “We can look at the patient’s well being and making their lives as long and as high-quality as possible.”

    By Keridwen Cornelius
    Phoenix Magazine

    4.15.19

    Instead of battling cancer, some cactus breeds simply adapt. Arizona State University researchers wonder if human beings can do the same.

    By Leah Shaffer
    Sapiens Magazine

    2.21.19

    Generosity helps communities manage risk and cope with disasters. New research untangles the factors that lead people to help neighbors in need. Learn more about The Human Generosity Project in this article.

    By Scott Seckel
    ASU Now

    10.18.18

    Four-day conference bridging science and the arts explores zombification to engage in potentially frightening aspects of the future.

    by Brett Milano

    Harvard Gazette

    4.4.18

    Cancer, with us since the dawn of cellular life, is a companion we may never be rid of, says Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Athena Aktipis. But a fresh look at the disease could bring new strategies for managing it, she told a Harvard audience on Wednesday, April 4th.

    by Brian Mockenhaupt

    High Country News

    12.7.15

    This article in High Country News covers our work on sharing in times of need as part of The Human Generosity Project, focusing on cooperation among ranchers in southern Arizona and New Mexico.

    by Carl Zimmer
    New York Times
    9.10.15

    This New York Times article is based on a review paper we published about microchimerism, maternal-fetal conflict and health.

    by George Johnson

    New York Times

    7.27.15

    This New York Times article covers our review of cancer as cheating in multicellular cooperation.

    by Carl Zimmer
    New York Times

    8.14.14

    Could microbes be manipulating our eating behavoir? This New York Times article covers our review of the potential mechanisms and evolutionary pressures that could lead to microbial manipulation.

  • selected talks

    Recent selected talks

    Got A Minute, ASU
    October, 2019

    In this short video I talk about how the body is made up of trillions of cells that all have to work together in cooperation.

    Invited talk at Harvard Museums

    April 4, 2018

    Cancer, with us since the dawn of cellular life, is a companion we may never be rid of, says Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Athena Aktipis. But a fresh look at the disease could bring new strategies for managing it, she told a Harvard audience on Wednesday, April 4th.

    Invited talk at TedX ASU

    May 21, 2016

    Throughout history, why have so many humans had the inherit need to be generous? Could generosity have something to do with the evolution of human societies? In her talk, Dr. Aktipis addresses the question of whether we help one another out of the goodness of our hearts or because we expect to get something back in return.

  • Writing

    My writing has appeared in Slate Magazine and is soon to appear in the LA Review of Books, Aeon and Scientific American. My book, The Cheating Cell, was published in March 2020.

    Princeton University Press 3.24.20

    When we think of the forces driving cancer, we don’t necessarily think of evolution. But evolution and cancer are closely linked, for the historical processes that created life also created cancer. The Cheating Cell delves into this extraordinary relationship, and shows that by understanding cancer’s evolutionary origins, researchers can come up with more effective, revolutionary treatments.

    Slate Magazine 4.1.20

    Zombies, pandemic, whatever it might be—use this opportunity to take stock and stock up (responsibly).

    Slate Magazine 4.20.17

    It’s been with us since the origins of multicellularity. It’s part of who we are.

  • Blog

    On teaching, learning and doing science

    An interactive game theory activity for teaching the prisoner's dilemma. We encounter cheating...
    Do you have what it takes to outcompete your neighbors, strategically cooperate take over the...
    March 24, 2016
    Do it yourself models of the evolution of cooperation. We've all been there. You've tried and...
    More Posts
  • TEACHING

    I teach in the Department of Psychology at ASU. My courses are cross-listed with Biology.

    Communication for Scientists

    Communicating with broader audiences through writing and more

    Whether you are looking for a way of reaching the public or just wanting to build your academic communication skills , this class will help you up your communications game. Learn how to write more effectively, speak more effectively, leverage communication resources in your community and create a strong online presence. We also talk about emerging issues in science communication such as new platforms for publishing, data management and open science.

     

    Next taught: Spring 2021

    Cooperation and Social Behavior

    Cooperation and conflict across life

    This course covers fundamental principles of cooperation across systems in order to better understand human social behavior. We discuss basic principles of cooperation and conflict using frameworks from multiple disciplines including evolutionary biology, economics, behavioral ecology and anthropology.

     

    Next taught: Spring 2022

    Microbiome and Social Behavior

    Humans: 30 trillion human cells. 30 trillion microbial cells

    Humans are complex social creatures and we are inhabited by trillions of microbes that live on and in us. These microbes behave and interact with each other and us in many fascinating ways. In this course we will ask: How does our social behavior affect microbiome transmission? How does our microbiome affect our social behaviors? Also, we discuss how cooperation and conflict shape interactions both among microbes and also between microbes and hosts.

     

    Next taught: Spring 2023

    Evolutionary Psychology

    How nature and nurture shape who we

    What is human nature? How has it been shaped by our evolutionary history? How do ecological factors influence human behavior and the behavior of other species? This course takes an interdisciplinary approach to behavior, incorporating psychological, anthropological and cross-species perspectives in an exploration of what makes us who we are.

     

    Next taught: Fall 2020

  • PUBLICATIONS

    Download my CV or click here for a list of select publications on my lab website

  • CONTACT

    Twitter

    Linked In

    email

  • Social Feed

    Hello Twittersphere!

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