Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Looking Forward to ele-FUN with Think Elephants!

By Lisa Barrett (incoming research assistant)

This past spring, a friend told me about the research assistantship with Think Elephants International (TEI), and I was ecstatic. A professor had forwarded her an email from Josh (TEI Founder). After having grown up playing “vet” with my Brittany spaniel and observing the behavioral patterns of deer in my backyard, I knew I wanted to pursue a career involving animals—perhaps as a veterinarian. However, I decided against this career path after gaining some firsthand experience as a kennel assistant. I didn’t especially like seeing animals sick and having to appease their owners, but rather I preferred to contribute to animal research. It was after a trip to South Africa with People to People Student Ambassadors during which I observed a young elephant that I decided how I wanted to spend the rest of my life: as an elephant researcher or conservationist.

It may seem like this decision was a bit rash, but, driven by my intense passion to study animals, I quickly began searching for opportunities to whet my skills as an animal behavior researcher anyway! During the course of my studies in Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Michigan, I participated in several different research endeavors. I helped create molds and casts of an ancient whale from Egypt; I studied squirrel monkey ranging behavior in Costa Rica; I analyzed scaling patterns of mastication in mammals; I found relationships between quality of parental care and feather brightness of offspring in Eastern bluebirds; and I investigated fox squirrel tolerance of humans and social cognition as part of my honors thesis. This latter project, which comprised my independent honors thesis project with Dr. John Mitani, really piqued my interest and helped me to determine my specific research interests. Thus, my honors thesis work, combined with my longstanding fascination with elephants, especially makes me very excited to study elephant cognition with the Think Elephants team.

I am also eager to contribute to the education side of working with TEI. At Michigan, I learned about the importance of educating others, especially children, in order to make a lasting impact. I developed and coordinated an after-school dance program for first- and second-grade students in southwest Detroit through a student-run, service-learning non-profit organization called The Detroit Partnership. I was fortunate to be able to impart my passion (for dance) onto students through this weekly program, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the dancers learn and grow. Most importantly, I learned how to work with community members to give them resources to achieve their goals. As an intern at the Philadelphia Zoo (near my home town of Pottstown, PA), I translated my passion for animal research by educating guests about animal behavior and conservation and what they could do on a daily basis to help change the world. This experience was extremely rewarding, and I look forward to using my skills specific to these experiences as an RA with TEI. 

I am looking forward to the year ahead, both to contribute to important cognitive research with implications for conservation and to educate and inspire guests and children. I am already finding that the incoming research assistants and I share the same passion to study elephants—demonstrated first and foremost by our enthusiasm to move to Thailand for one year—!

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