Sandra J. Gray, PhD

Associate Professor
Ph.D., Anthropology, The State University of New York at Binghamton
Primary office:
Fraser Hall
Room 626


I obtained a PhD in 1992 from Binghamton University, via a circuitous route through the arts and the theatre (I am a member of Actors' Equity Association and have never completely left that profession). My early interests in paleoanthropology and the evolution of art gave way gradually to a focus on evolution in general and specifically human behavioral evolution. However, my recent work has moved me away from human behavioral ecology to more applied work in the area of human health and culture change. I have worked in East Africa since 1987: first among nomadic Turkana herders in Kenya and since 1994, among agropastoralists in Karamoja, Uganda.


Ph.D., Anthropology, The State University of New York at Binghamton

M.A., Anthropology, The State University of New York at Binghamton

B.F.A., Theatre, The Goodman School of Drama of the Art Institute of Chicago

BA, Theater. I transferred to a professional school after two years, so did not complete the BA at Mount Holyoke., Mount Holyoke College


My current teaching focus is in three broad categories: (1) human adaptation and evolution (2) human nutrition and health (3) African pastoralism. In most of my courses, I use primary sources, in the belief that students are more likely to learn to think critically when the critical thinking has not been done for them - my major complaint with many college-level text books. My teaching style is highly interactive, and I employ humor as a fundamental pedagogical tool. My years as an actress and my theatrical training are profoundly useful for the effectiveness of this approach.

My emphasis is on concepts, and my overarching objective in all of my courses, whether undergraduate or graduate, is that students acquire a working understanding of important concepts in evolution, anthropology and human biology, which they can actively apply not only in academics but also in the real world. A second objective - and another reason I use primary sources - is to improve students' reading comprehension and writing ability. I require major writing & research projects in every course, and revision is a central feature of these projects. If our students are to improve their writing skills, they must have feedback. A poor grade on the first and last draft of a term paper teaches them nothing except to hate writing.

I am currently in the process of developing an intensive program in nutritional anthropology at KU.

Teaching Interests

  • Student engagement
  • Interactive approach
  • Humor
  • Verbal and written communication skills


My overarching focus in on maternal and child health in sub-Saharan Africa. As part of this research program, I have published studies on child growth, maternal and child nutrition, maternal and child health, breastfeeding, maternal investment, maternal reproductive strategies. I have explicitly examined these topics in a context of ongoing armed violence, economic and cultural marginalization, and impoverishment in northern Uganda. As part of my research on African pastoralists, I have examined impacts of armed conflict, economic development, structural violence , lost livelihoods and culture change among Karimojong herders. Recent work is focused on dietary change and human adaptability; effects of livelihood change and maternal psychosocial stress on child survival; and suicide. A paper currently in progress examines maternal health care decisions in a specific cultural context with attention to mothers' ideologies of child health and sickness. That paper utilizes a model developed by Christopher Colvin and colleagues in a 2013 study, which challenges the top-down approach of global health initiatives, esp. the Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhea. In my paper, I reconstruct the navigation of multiple factors affecting mothers' decisions, from individual beliefs to the household to the wider social setting. I discuss how I impacted one women's decision making as part of participant observation, and the degree to which I compounded her stress.

Research Interests

  • Karamoja, East African pastoralism
  • Maternal strategies
  • Child survival
  • Behavioral ecology


Most of my service has been to the Anthropology Department and larger University of Kansas community. I served for many years as the undergraduate coordinator for Anthropology through May, 2017. With other members of the UG committee, I helped to develop a new, more dynamic structure for the undergraduate degree in Anthropology. At the university level and/or in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, I have served on the curriculum committee, promotion and tenure committee, and faculty senate, among others. For a period I served as the Director of the Human Biology Program. My service record is substantial.

Courses Recently Taught

  • Anthropology of Sex
  • Nutritional Anthropology: Methods and Theory
  • Human Adaptation
  • Anthropology of Food and Nutrition
  • Biology of Human Nutrition

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