From the sunny tropical island of Barbados to the neuroscience laboratories in the basement of Young Hall, psychology major Amanda Glueck ’10 has been completing important behavioral neuroscience research with Centre faculty, not only as a college student but also as an alumna.
Glueck’s involvement with collaborative research began in a class with Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Brian Cusato.
“I took an animal behavior class with Brian, and I really liked it,” she recalls. “He talked a lot about his own research during the class. I knew I wanted to do something that answered research questions with animals, and when he offered up his line of research, I took it and ran with it.”
Glueck’s involvement with the behavioral neuroscience program grew from there—she spent a summer conducting experiments with quail and studied abroad in the Caribbean with the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences on Roatan Island of Honduras. While there, she helped the Institute with its dolphin research.
After graduating, Glueck went on to enroll at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, Texas, where she has completed a Master’s degree and is currently working on her doctoral dissertation.
Despite leaving Danville, Glueck’s Centre connection remained strong, especially when Associate Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Melissa Burns-Cusato contacted her about a research opportunity in Barbados.
“We’ve stayed in touch throughout my graduate school career,” Glueck explains. “If I have a question or need some advice, I call them. So when Melissa called and asked if I was interested in working with her in Barbados, I jumped at the chance—it’s really fun to get out of the lab and do some fieldwork.”
Burns-Cusato felt the arrangement was a win-win for everyone involved.
“Amanda has a lot of experience designing behavioral experiments,” she explains. “With her assistance, the students in the course would get more one-on-one guidance from trained researchers, and Amanda would get experience teaching undergraduate students about research design.”
Three different studies were conducted in Barbados, all of which examined ancestral anti-predator responses in green monkeys.
The population of green monkeys in Barbados is especially intriguing to behavioral neuroscientists for two reasons: first, because these monkeys have been isolated from their foundation colony (in Africa) for over 380 years, they offer a unique opportunity to study the interplay of genetics and learned behavior. Second, these monkeys face no natural predators other than humans, making them a fairly unique animal population on which to study predation and fear responses.
The first study explored how monkeys recognize predators by exposing them to both a fake rubber snake and a piece of black rope, an expansion of a pilot study by Ryan Will ’11 that found monkeys were much more willing to approach and even touch the piece of rope over the fake snake.
The second study examined if the monkeys recognize predators’ faces by presenting monkeys with pictures of leopards and antelopes. Initial results indicate that monkeys find the predator faces aversive compared to the non-predator faces.
The final study investigated the monkeys’ fear responses.
“They have vocalizations that give the other animals in their troop a heads-up that there’s a predator in the area,” Glueck explains. “Based on the type of vocalization, the animals respond differently; for example, if they hear the snake alarm, they engage in mobbing behavior that drives away the predator; if they hear an eagle alarm, they look up to the sky and hide under a bush, or if they hear a leopard alarm they climb a tree.”
Because monkeys in Barbados do not have many predators other than humans, the researchers wanted to know if the monkeys in Barbados would respond to alarm calls from their home troop in Africa. Their initial study found that even though the monkeys in Barbados did not experience predators regularly, they still responded to the alarm calls correctly—climbing trees when the leopard alarm was played and not when the snake alarm was played.
“What’s really interesting and what we hope to eventually accomplish with this research is to help solve a big problem on the island,” Glueck says. “Since there are no natural predators there, the monkey population has remained fairly unchecked.
“These monkeys often engage in crop raiding of local farms,” she adds. “We’re hoping that we can figure out a way to deter them from crop raiding with something as simple as posting decoys that keep them away.”
Future plans for this research include using paper kites to investigate how monkeys respond to flying predators. Glueck is particularly interested in deconstructing predator faces to isolate which specific traits the monkeys are recognizing as predatory.
For Glueck, who is currently teaching a comparative psychology classes at TCU, the chance to work with both Centre professors and students was refreshing and inspiring.
The high caliber of the Centre experience is one Glueck took with her to graduate school, where she says her professors were blown away by her wealth of undergraduate research experience.
“When I first came to TCU, I was telling everybody about my research experience and they were absolutely floored,” she says. “My professors were amazed at the amount of in-depth, hands-on experience I had.
“I got to do something that not a whole heck of a lot of people get to experience,” she continues. “In the Cusato lab, I got a sneak peek of what it would be like to be a graduate student. You formulate your own research, run it, analyze your data, meet regularly with your professor. All of this has been valuable for me as a graduate student.”
Glueck also credits much of her success in graduate school to Centre’s teaching philosophy, “especially its insistence on public speaking,” she says. “I was in graduate classes with people who’d never done a presentation. That makes sense when you’re in a class of 300, I understand that, but I was still amazed.”
Having spent time at a larger research university, Glueck can also appreciate the unique teaching experience available to students at Centre.
“I really enjoyed the one-on-one relationship with professors,” she says, “working in a more intimate setting. If you choose to, you can get a pretty custom education at Centre.”
And as far as Glueck is concerned, her connection to the College is far from over.
“It was wonderful to work with the Cusatos again, and I really enjoyed this different Centre experience,” she says. “How many other colleges and universities offer alumnae the opportunity to stay connected in such a unique way? I can’t wait until CentreTerm 2015, when we plan to return to Barbados to continue our research.”
Learn more about Behavioral Neuroscience at Centre.
By Mariel Smith