Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Learning to Think Elephants

Hi! I'm Sophie, one of the newest additions to the Think Elephants team. After completing my first month of intensive training in the Golden Triangle, I’m almost positive that a) I can rattle off more elephant facts than I ever thought possible, b) most of my new tan is actually just a thin layer of persistent mud, and c) I stumbled upon the perfect post-graduate position. The first is a necessity of the job, the second a byproduct of the rainy season and thorough investigations by curious trunks, and the last both a relief and a joy to discover. I’m exhausted at the end of every day, but it is the satisfied type of fatigue that has me looking forward to doing it all over again tomorrow.

Besides getting a good night’s sleep, success as a research assistant with Think Elephants International requires effective communication. Our days are filled with educating visitors from of all ages and backgrounds, discussing projects and results with team members, and trying to convey wishes to mahouts whose English is somewhat--but not quite sufficiently--better than my Thai. Most importantly, though, you need to be able to communicate with the elephants

More than just learning a few verbal commands, as a researcher you need to know what your subject understands about the presented problem. If the elephant doesn’t gather and grasp all of the information relevant to the experiment, how can it ever be expected to find the solution? Previous posts on this blog have explored the limitations of an elephant’s visual system (Seeing Red), and the most recent paper published by Dr. Josh Plotnik and his team of middle school collaborators demonstrated that elephants do not use visual cues to find a food reward. This has been one of my favorite aspects of the job so far: adapting experimental paradigms designed for species that favor visual input, such as humans and apes, to suit animals who rely heavily on olfactory and tactile information gathered by their trunk. It’s a challenging but fascinating brainteaser that requires a lot of creativity, flexibility, and patience. In a perfect catch-22, if you can’t learn to think like an elephant then you’ll never fully understand how elephants think.

The ability to “think elephants” is a new skill I’m trying my best to acquire quickly; there was, in fact, a distinct lack of pachyderms included in my liberal arts experience. I graduated in May from Haverford College, where I spent four years working towards a BS in Psychology, with a concentration in Neural and Behavioral Sciences. The major focus of my studies was Cognitive Neuroscience, looking at the underlying mechanisms of ideas, memories and emotions in the human brain. I spent a summer analyzing data from a longitudinal study of children with early brain damage, looking specifically at deficits in their language development and the degree to which their neural circuitry could adapt and compensate. For my senior thesis work, I switched to the opposite end of the age spectrum, examining the changes in emotion regulation and attentional control of older adult populations as measured through a harmless electrode cap.

I enjoyed conducting research, but a windowless room, full of the endless peaks and troughs of recorded brain waves, finally convinced me I wasn’t ready to commit to life in a lab just yet. Coupled with the fact that my favorite classes in college were on primate social structure and the neuroscience behind animal behavior, I started looking for internships in zoos and aquariums. I would love to say that something more exciting than a methodical search of job postings on the internet brought me to TEI, but the months of virtual legwork were an important part of solidifying which directions I did (and did not) want to take in my fledgling career. Though I’m still not sure where I’ll end up after my time with TEI, I’m looking forward to the next year of delicious food, passionate co-workers, and elephants with personalities larger than their already massive body size.

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