Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Other roads leading to TEI

I was thinking back as to how I found my way to Think Elephants International, and I have to admit that my “path” certainly was not planned with a goal to end up here. That said, it closely resembles the steps and advice that Dan laid out in his previous post, especially as far as getting relevant experience and taking advantage of available opportunities. Already during my undergraduate days my interests, and resulting majors, did not appear directly compatible. I enjoyed running youth groups, which translated to a Social Welfare degree, and I was fascinated by non-human primates so also majored in Anthropology. A chance encounter in the mailroom in the Department of Physiology at UW-Madison - where I really was just delivering the mail - led to my first experience working with monkeys. It was a casual conversation with the chair of the department about what I was thinking of doing after graduation – no plans, but interested in primates – and him telling me that they just hired a new faculty member, Dr. Michele Basso, who worked with monkeys and that I should get in contact with her. I found myself in her office the second day she was on campus and thankfully she took a chance on hiring this person who had no actual experience, but obviously was motivated and followed through with a minor networking connection.

I gained a lot of very valuable skills in that first job especially in the way of research methods and design. Though the specific research area was not my personal interest, the skills and abilities I acquired have been useful ever since. If I can echo Dan’s advice – experience can come in all shapes and forms, and if offered an opportunity that may not be “exactly” what you think you want to do, I assure you that the experience can still be incredibly beneficial and move you toward your ultimate goal. It will also open other doors that you didn’t even know existed, and just may move you in a totally new direction. Don’t ever limit yourself as far as where you seek out experience and opportunities.

For graduate studies, I found my way to Emory University, working with Dr. Frans de Waal. My initial intent was to work with chimpanzees, but I started with capuchin monkeys, discovered that I loved it, and that’s where I stayed. In addition to doing research, I took advantage of several teaching opportunities and discovered that I also quite enjoyed teaching. The experience that really changed everything was a fellowship I received for the PRISM Program (Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics), in which I was trained in problem-based learning and investigative case-based learning pedagogies. After designing several lessons with the middle school teacher with whom I was paired, I was then in the classroom working side-by-side with the teacher, implementing the lessons with four 6th grade earth science classes. The school I was in was not one of the highest performing schools, to say the least, but I saw first hand how engaged students were when the lessons were active, interesting, and applied to real life. Students who consistently failed exams and traditional assignments were all of a sudden engrossed in the subject matter, doing their own research, and holding mock debates as to where the safest place to go on a tropical vacation would be if they wanted to avoid a tsunami, demonstrating their knowledge of plate tectonics. From that point forward I have been passionate about science education and changed the way I taught my own classes, putting students in control of their learning and making sure that it was always applicable to the real world. 

The research questions I am most interested in are about social cognition – how individuals understand and make sense of the social world around them – and look to answer these questions in an evolutionary and comparative context. This has been strongly influenced by my graduate mentor, Dr. de Waal, and fits well with the research being conducted at TEI. I’ve examined face recognition in capuchin monkeys and shown that they can pick out who is a member of their social group and who isn’t from a line-up of photos. But as someone interested in social cognition and seeing how fundamental it is across most of the animal world, I took interest in what happens when the system goes awry, such as in autism. Thus, my path took yet another turn and I came out to UC Davis as part of the Autism Research Training Program to study the development of cognitive processes in children and adolescents with autism. In particular, the transitions into and out of middle school have been my focus, as this is a critical time of development, both cognitively and socially, and in general is a difficult period in life for many children, even those who do not have autism. We still are learning about how this is reflected in the brain, and the bidirectional interaction between brain development and the experiences the child undergoes every day. This area of research has great implications for the education field, as learning about how the brain develops, processes, and learns information can impact not only what we teach and when, but how we teach.

So this is how my seemingly meandering career path and interests (comparative social cognition, cognitive development in childhood and adolescence, science education) all tie together as Head of Education for TEI. While Josh and I were graduate students, he started discussing his ideas for TEI and I mentioned that I would be interested in being involved, especially on the education side. Two plus years later, here we are. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be involved in such an organization that seamlessly ties together research, education and conservation. Like many of the personal stories others have shared, what brought me here was a series of small steps, taking advantage of available opportunities, pursuing interests that I had regardless of whether or not they followed some traditional path, and making connections with people along the way.

Jen Pokorny, Ph.D.
Head of Education 

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