Alumna draws on anthropology background in new movie

Brynn Boehler
November 04, 2019

Alumna Carylanna Taylor came to Penn State eager to make a difference. Even in the early years of her undergraduate education, she knew her main interests were in the environment, international relations and photography.

This eventually led her to change from a chemical engineering major to economics and Latin American studies. After completing her undergraduate degree at Penn State in 1997, Taylor received a master of science degree in development sociology from Cornell in 2003 and a doctorate degree in applied cultural anthropology from the University of South Florida in 2011. Taylor went on to work in her discipline of anthropology for more than 20 years, teaching and researching in Latin America and the U.S. with a focus on rural development and migration —something that would go on to influence her future creations.

Today, she is changing the world through viewers’ eyes, as one of the filmmakers behind a new narrative feature film, "ANYA." Taylor and award-winning documentarian Jacob Akira Okada aimed to “tell a deeply human story -- in this case, a couple’s struggle to overcome infertility -- and to invite viewers to explore the larger social, scientific and ethical issues connected to developing genetics technologies.”

"ANYA" tells the story of a young couple, Libby and Marco, who suffer multiple miscarriages in the process of trying to have a child. Libby, a journalist, turns to science to solve their fertility issues, while her husband reveals something about his secretive and mysterious culture, as a member of a forgotten people called the "Narval," who migrated from a remote Caribbean Island.

The "Narval” believe that anyone who marries outside the community, as he did, is cursed to never have children. Determined to disprove what is clearly a groundless superstition, Libby turns to a geneticist. This opens up a myriad of consequences involving genetic testing, gene-editing, and the invasion of privacy.

Taylor and Okada bonded as filmmaking partners and eventually married, navigating a relationship as an intercultural couple, much like the couple in their story.

Taylor also sees her education play a large role in her approach to the filmmaking process. It was her passion for anthropology through film that led to a partnership with Okada in the form of First Encounter Productions.

She even traced her current work styles and perspective back to her time as an undergraduate, to experiences that significantly impacted her development. Possibly the most valuable of these was a mere focus and way of approaching the world. Taylor credits Lakshman Yapa, professor emeritus of geography, for giving her the tools to understand that “there are as many ways of understanding and approaching a problem as there are facets to it, that interventions almost always come with unintended consequences, and that discourse and knowledge are power.”

As an eventual recipient of the Fulbright and the Presidential Leadership Award, as well as a finalist for the Truman Award, Taylor also studied abroad twice during her time as an undergraduate. She spent both a semester at La Iberoamericana University in Mexico City and a year in the Minnesota Studies in International Development Program to Ecuador.

These experiences, as well as practical speaking and writing skills, impacted Taylor’s openness to new methods. Without her liberal arts education, Taylor said, “I don't think I would have seen the value of switching from academia to filmmaking. I don't think I would have appreciated the kind of science communication through entertainment that we're trying to do. And I don't think I would have been as able to have been as easily able to have conversations with academics from other disciplines for our films.”

Today, Taylor has no regrets in choosing a holistic, multifaceted approach over technical expertise. Though she has used her specific knowledge about genetics, evolution, culture and more, Taylor values the overall perspective that helped her in the creation of "ANYA" and other First Encounter Productions films.

“I draw on my education from undergrad at Penn State in myriad ways. In how and what I write, in how I learn, and in how I see the world,” Taylor said. “I wouldn't be who I am without it.”

"ANYA" will be coming to Apple TV, Amazon, DVD, and more on Nov. 26. Preorder now, request a screening, and get updates at

  • Carylanna Taylor head shot

    Taylor and Okada bonded as filmmaking partners and eventually married, navigating a relationship as an intercultural couple, much like the couple in their story.

    IMAGE: Provided by Carylanna Taylor

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 04, 2019