Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Science Life

Grad school is not like anything else you will ever experience. But don’t take my word for it:

"I’m a Grad Student" by Adam Ruben:

"Grad School, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down" (LCD Soundsystem Parody) by Nathaniel Krefman at UC-Berkeley:

"The Lab Song" (Bruno Mars Parody) by the Cohenford Lab at Marshall University:

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below. And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future post!

Check out other sciency song battles at Science Beat, Scientist Swagger and Battle of The Grad Programs!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Getting Research Experience

You grew up watching nature documentary scientists travelling the world, covertly following and filming wild animals, learning all the secrets of the animal world first-hand with bewildering technology, and you have thought that should be me.

This could be you! Photo by Genny Kozak.

Conducting animal behavior research is incredibly satisfying and exciting, but it is also tedious and frustrating. It’s not for everyone… So how do you know if it’s for you unless you’ve tried it? And how do you try it if you’ve never done it before?

There are plenty of ways to get involved in research, even if you have no experience. And a good place to start is wherever you are.

If you are a college student or have a university in your area, chances are pretty good that there are people on your campus doing research that you would find interesting. Those people may be professors, research scientists, postdocs or graduate students. They may be in a biology, psychology or anthropology department. And their research interests are often listed either on their individual webpages or on departmental webpages. Poke around: They’re out there.

Another good place to look is your local zoo or aquarium. Many large and renowned zoos and aquariums have official research internship programs. But even smaller zoos that don’t advertise will accept volunteers if you make them the right pitch.

If you are interested in wildlife studies, your state DNR (the Department of Natural Resources) may have an internship program as well. Even if they don’t have an official program, there is a chance that they have researchers that can be persuaded to take on a dedicated mentee.

Once you have identified people that you would potentially like to work with, you need to contact them to assess whether they have something productive for you to do and to convince them that you are the one for the job. This first contact may seem intimidating, but the reality is that any researcher would love some help from an enthusiastic, dedicated, and intelligent volunteer (especially if you are willing to work for free or for college credit). However, the reality is also that researchers may not be in a place at the moment to have something productive for you to do. Furthermore, many researchers (particularly professors at large universities) are bombarded by e-mails from students interested in gaining research experience, and your interest can get lost in the chorus of applications. This is why your timing and your pitch are key.

This could be you too! Photo by Charity Juang.
As for timing, research tends to happen in fits and spurts that depend on the availability of research funding. Research can be slow when there’s no money to buy supplies and equipment, pay travel expenses, pay for animal care, and pay salaries. But when a grant does come through, the researcher is suddenly under intense pressure to collect and publish data as quickly as possible before the grant runs out. It’s hard to tell when a particular researcher may have funding, so one good strategy is to keep your eyes and ears open. Sometimes researchers post announcements around their departmental buildings when they're recruiting undergraduate research assistants. Positions and internships may be announced online. But more commonly, positions are filled before they're even announced. So how do you get a coveted position that isn’t even announced?

The best strategy is to contact researchers you are interested in working with as soon as you discover them and conveying your background and interests. They may not have an opening at the moment, but if you remind them of your availability and interest periodically (at the start of each semester, for example), you will likely be among the first to be informed when a position does open up.

What should you say when you contact a researcher you would like to work with? Generally, researchers want to know a few things when being approached by a prospective research assistant:

  1. If you are a student, what year are you? Training an assistant is usually a sizable time commitment. During an assistant’s first year, researchers spend as much or more time training the assistant than the assistant contributes to the project. For that reason, researchers usually prefer to hire someone who is likely to stay in the lab beyond a year. The more time you have before you graduate, the more desirable you are as an applicant.

  2. What are your research interests and how do they relate to the lab you are applying to? Researchers want assistants that are self-motivated. If you are genuinely interested in the project you will be working on, you are more likely to do a good job and get more out of the experience.

  3. What do you hope to gain out of such a research experience? Do you want experience with a particular technique or species? Are you hoping to work for pay or are you willing to work for college credit or just for the experience of it? Be honest here (especially if you need this to pay rent), but keep in mind that most labs don’t have money to pay assistants.

  4. What do you have to offer? If you are interested in field research, mention if you are an experienced outdoors enthusiast. If you are interested in learning wetlab techniques, mention your attention to detail. If you are willing to do menial tasks such as dishwashing and maintaining equipment, that could be a major selling point.

Your initial e-mail should be brief (a short paragraph is most effective). But you may want to attach a résumé as well. At the very least, your résumé should list any previous research experiences, classes you have you taken (biology, statistics, chemistry) that may be relevant to a project in this lab, and leadership/work positions you have held.

If you start early in your search and are persistent (but not pushy), you should be able to find a research position within a year. Good luck!

For more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not Quite Like a Rolling Stone

Dung beetles are competitive little critters. And who can blame them? When a fresh pile of poo is at stake, wouldn’t we all be a bit competitive? …Okay, maybe not. But animal dung is actually chock-full of nutrients, which makes it a precious resource to the animals that can make use of them. The approximately 6,000 species of dung beetles and their babies are among the animals that make excellent use of those resources.

Mmmm... A poo-pile worth fighting for! Image by Duwwel at Wikimedia.
But even animal dung is a limited resource. When it is plopped out, dung beetles gather from far and wide (okay, maybe not that far) to compete over the miraculous manna from heaven. Many dung beetle species, such as the South African dung beetle, forms round balls of poo to prepare them for transport, and then rolls them away from the poo-pile. This process of forming the poo-ball and getting it away from the poo-pile must be quick. Otherwise, dung beetles that are either less fortunate or less-inclined to work for their poo-balls will try to steal pre-made poo-balls from those that worked to form them.

But this isn’t a story about competition. This is a story about navigation.

The fastest way to get a poo-ball away from the poo-pile is in a straight line, and dung beetles are experts at pushing their poo-balls in straight lines. Researchers have played countless tricks (like adding obstacles and spinning floors) on these guys to try to confuse them into going the wrong way, but to no avail. These guys always seem to know where they want to go. But how?

There are many methods animals use to navigate. Some use celestial cues, like the placement of the sun or the stars, to know what direction they are facing. Some remember the placement of landmarks in places they visit often, such as their home. But many combine strategies to get a more accurate idea of where they are going.

Marie Dacke and Marcus Byrne from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and Jochen Smolka, Eric Warrant, and Emily Baird from Lund University in Sweden set out to test the relative importance of landmarks and celestial cues in South African dung beetles.

A dung beetle rolls his poo-ball backwards. Photo by Dewet at Wikimedia.
South African dung beetles face backwards when they roll their poo-ball away from the poo-pile. In this position, they should always be able to see the poo-pile and perhaps use the pile itself as a landmark. To test this, the researchers placed beetles on dung piles and waited for them to make a poo-ball and roll it away. Once they got 75 cm away, they moved the dung pile 45° to the left or to the right with respect to the beetle. If the beetles use the dung pile as a landmark, the new location of the pile should make the beetles change course by 45° as well. But they didn’t.

Next, the researchers tested whether dung beetles rely on more distant landmarks to know where they’re going. They created two adjacent, but different, testing arenas: One had an unobstructed view of the surrounding landscape (called the “landmark arena”), and the other was surrounded by a beige featureless wall (called the “no-landmark arena”). Both arenas had a full view of the sky and its celestial cues. They placed beetles and their poo-balls at the center of the landmark arena and allowed them to roll away at least 80 cm. Then they picked them up and placed them in the no-landmark arena and waited to see if the removal of landmarks caused them to roll in the same direction or change bearings. They repeated this in the opposite direction to see if the addition of landmarks could improve accuracy. To check if simply moving the beetles affected their rolling directions, they also picked beetles up and returned them to their original arenas (these were the control beetles). In the end, the beetles that changed arenas did not navigate any differently than the beetles that were picked up and returned to their original arenas, indicating that as long as the beetles can see the sky, they don’t seem to rely on landmarks to navigate.

To test if the sky provides important navigational information to the dung beetles, the researchers put little cardboard hats on some of them to block their view of the sky and had them roll their poo-balls from the center of a wall-free arena with full view of landmarks. Other beetles were allowed to roll their poo-balls without the obstructive hats. But just to be sure the hats themselves weren’t causing the beetles trouble (other than by blocking their view of the sky), the researchers also tested a group with transparent plastic hats. They found that the beetles with no hats or with clear hats rolled their poo-balls just fine. However, the beetles with dark cardboard hats spun in circles, whirled and twirled, apparently having the darnedest time going in a straight line. But a dung beetle doesn’t have to wear a cardboard hat to lose track of the sky. The researchers tested beetles on a clear day with hats, on a clear day without hats, and on an overcast day without hats. The overcast sky screwed up the little buggers almost as much as the cardboard hats did!

Combined, these studies show that the South African dung beetles rely almost entirely on celestial cues and don’t seem to rely on landmarks at all. Even the dung pile, which is always a large, central easy-to-see landmark, seems to be completely ignored by the poo-rolling dung beetles. This heavy reliance on a single type of navigational cue is unusual in the animal world, and you can imagine the havoc it would wreck if all animals got so lost every time there was a cloudy day. But for the South African dung beetle, the consequences aren’t as high as they are for other species. They aren’t taking their poo-balls to a specific location, just away quickly, so they’re never truly lost as long as they’re with their poo. And if the worst happens and someone takes their poo-ball, they can go make another.

We can learn a lot from these guys. In life we face obstacles, we go unknown directions, and we get lost. But no worries… The sun will come out again soon.

Want to know more? Check these out:

Dacke M, Byrne M, Smolka J, Warrant E, & Baird E (2013). Dung beetles ignore landmarks for straight-line orientation. Journal of comparative physiology. A, Neuroethology, sensory, neural, and behavioral physiology, 199 (1), 17-23 PMID: 23076443

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Risky Business: Ape Style

The decisions of this chimpanzee living in the
Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary are affected
by his social situation. Photo by Alex Rosati.
If you have a choice between a prize that is awesome half the time and totally lame the other half of the time or a mediocre prize that is a sure-thing, which would you choose? Your choice probably depends on your personality somewhat. It may also depend on your needs and your mood. And it can depend on social contexts, like if you’re competing with someone or if you’re being watched by your boss or someone you have a crush on.

All animals have to make choices. Some choices are obvious: Choose the thing that is known to be of high quality over the thing that is known to be of low quality. But usually, the qualities of some options are uncertain and choosing them can be risky. As with us, the likelihood of some primates, birds, and insects to choose riskier options over safer ones can be affected by outside influences. And we aren’t the only species to have our risk-taking choices influenced by social context.

Anthropologists Alex Rosati and Brian Hare at Duke University tested two ape species, chimpanzees and bonobos, in their willingness to choose the riskier option in different social situations. They tested chimpanzees living in the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary and bonobos in the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary, both in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the apes living in these sanctuaries are confiscated from poachers that captured them from the wild for the pet trade and for bushmeat. In these sanctuaries the animals live in social groups, generally spending their days roaming large tracts of tropical forest and their nights in indoor dormitories. This lifestyle rehabilitates their bodies and minds, resulting in psychologically healthy sanctuary inhabitants.

It is in these familiar dormitories that Alex and Brian tested the apes’ propensity for making risky choices. For their experimental set-up, an experimenter sat across a table from an ape and offered them two options: an overturned bowl that always covered a treat that the apes kinda like (peanuts) versus an overturned bowl that covered either an awesome treat (banana or apple) or a lousy treat (cucumber or lettuce). In this paradigm, the peanut-bowl represents the safe choice because whenever the ape chooses it, they know they’re getting peanuts. But the other bowl is the risky choice, because half the time they get fruit (yum!), but the other half of the time they get greens (bummer).

This figure from Rosati and Hare's 2012 Animal Behavour paper shows Alex demonstrating the steps they would go through before the ape chose one of the two options.
After spending some time training the apes to be sure they understood the game, the researchers tested their choices in different social situations. In each test session, the ape was allowed to choose between the two bowls (and eat the reward) multiple times (each choice was called a trial). But before the test session began and in between choice trials, another experimenter sat with the ape for two minutes and did one of three things: In one group, the experimenter sat at the table and silently looked down (they called this the “neutral condition”). In another group, the experimenter repeatedly offered the ape a large piece of food, pulling it away and grunting whenever the ape reached for it (they called this the “competitive condition”). In a third group, the experimenter tickled and played with the ape (they called this the “play condition”).

Alex and Brian found out that whereas bonobos chose the safe option and the risky option about equally, the chimpanzees were significantly more likely to choose the risky option. But despite this species difference, both species chose the risky option more often in the “competitive condition”. Neither species increased their risk-taking in the “play condition”.

The graph on the left shows that wheras bonobos chose the safe option and the risky option each about 50% of the time (where the dashed line is), the chimpanzees chose the risky option much more often. The graph on the right shows that both species chose the risky option more often in the "competition condition" than they did in the "neutral condition". Figure from Rosati and Hare's 2012 Animal Behavour paper.
These are interesting findings, especially when you consider the natural behaviors and lifestyles of these closely related species. Bonobos can be thought of as the hippies of the ape world, happily sharing and using sex to settle disputes and strengthen relationships. In comparison, chimpanzees are more like gangsters, aggressively fighting over resources and dominance ranks. So in general, the more competitive species is more likely to take risks. But when the social environment becomes more competitive, both species up the ante. This effect doesn’t seem to be simply the result of being in a social situation, because the apes didn’t increase their risk-taking in the presence of a playful experimenter.

This still leaves us with some questions to ponder though. Are apes more likely to take risks when an experimenter is offering food and taking it away because of a heightened sense of competition, or is this the result of frustration? And would we see the same effect if the “competitor” were another ape of the same species, rather than a human experimenter? How would their behavior change if they were hungry? These questions are harder to get at, but this research does demonstrate that like in humans, the decision-making process in chimpanzees and bonobos is dependent on social context.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Rosati, A., & Hare, B. (2012). Decision making across social contexts: competition increases preferences for risk in chimpanzees and bonobos Animal Behaviour, 84 (4), 869-879 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.07.010