Introduction: My Path to Primatology

Midwest Primate Interest Group, 2008

Midwest Primate Interest Group, 2008

You all know a bit about me from the about section, so I thought it might be helpful to tell you about my path to becoming a primatologist. I always loved animals, and in elementary school, I was sure I wanted to study humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins (in particular, vocalizations and how they learn to be adults). However, by the time I was applying to colleges, I decided to major in psychology and take pre-med classes at University of Illinois. Early sophomore year, I was trying to figure out how to spend a year abroad in the UK, yet still manage to finish the pre-med classes and take MCATs junior. However, I didn’t really want to go to med school, and started considering vet school.

And then I became friends with a couple of people interested in primatology, and they lent me their Jane Goodall books. The second semester of sophomore year, I also took an Animals and Ethics class. I enjoyed that class, but was frustrated that speculation about animals’ cognitive and emotional abilities had little to do with the cognitive research I learned in my psychology courses. And at the end of the course, we read JM Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. I didn’t particular enjoy the book itself, but at the end were four commentaries. One was written by Barbara Smuts, and she described her experiences doing field research on baboons. So then, I started to think more about the possibility of studying primates, particularly captive ape cognition.

That summer, I interned at a local animal control center, where we divided our time between shelter care, office work, and running Animal Education Day Camp. We took the day camp kids on field trips to Brookfield Zoo. Although we had a booklet of questions for them to answer in five different areas, I would try to stay in Tropic World (the primate building) with the kids as long as I could. That’s when I started thinking about whether I would be able to study primates in the wild, and discovered Primate Info Net.

I spent junior year in Aberdeen, Scotland, taking courses to fulfill my history minor and some psychology courses. A friend back at U of I told me that there was a primate field course offered through the anthropology department, and we both registered. The course was taught by Paul Garber at Ometepe, Nicaragua, and we would all be doing independent projects on mantled howler monkeys. I was very nervous about whether I would actually like fieldwork; I hated insects and spiders, and wasn’t a huge fan of getting dirty. But I figured the month-long course would be a good way to test out fieldwork and see how I really felt about it.

The course was amazing, and changed my life. I did my project on social behavior and spacing on the howlers, and loved to be out there watching them. I had an easier time with the bugs and dirt than I thought (though I later realized that was because of dry forest—fieldwork in rainforests is very buggy and muddy!). A few other students complained that they thought this was their dream, they realized that they didn’t enjoy the reality. I felt the opposite; from then on, I knew for certain that I wanted to be a primatologist.

When I returned to Illinois, I decided to take a few more biology courses to turn my pre-med curriculum into a biology major (Ecology, Ethology, Evolution). I also decided that I would take a year or two building up my research experience before applying to graduate school.  I began applying to zoo research internships and field assistant positions. However, while my friends were getting accepted into grad schools and med schools, Teach for America and volunteer positions in Africa, I was rejected from everything I applied for, and spent time after graduation time unemployed an unable to find either a job or primate-relate positions. However, I finally had some successful applications and did some amazing things. I worked as an intern keeper at two sanctuaries, and fell in love with spider monkeys at one of them. I also worked on a project surveying unhabituated chimps and gorillas in Cameroon, and as an assistant to a doctoral student studying rhesus monkey foraging and dentition at Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico.

Michelle Cayo monkey

At Cayo Santiago

I applied to graduate programs in psychology and anthropology, and ended up choosing between two masters’ programs—a psychology program where I could study Tibetan macaques in China, or an anthropology program where I could study spider monkeys in Costa Rica. I knew studying social behavior and development in macaques would be much easier, but wanted to try studying spider monkeys (I loved them in captivity but heard they were very difficult to follow in the field). My love for spider monkeys won out, and I went to Iowa State University to work with Jill Pruetz. She was involved with  El Zota Biological Field Station, but focused on her field site at Fongoli, Senegal, which was beginning to yield some amazing discoveries. I went on a short trip to El Zota for pilot observations over winter break, and then spent the summer at the station collecting data on sex differences in juvenile social behavior. The spider monkeys were difficult to follow in the swampy rainforest, but I loved them and the forest. During the second year of my Masters’ I also audited a course at another university on Animal Reintroductions taught by one of my major primatology heroes, Benjamin Beck. This led to working with him and a fellow graduate student on developing guidelines for reintroductions of great apes.

I applied to a mix of biology and anthropology PhD programs, and decided to go to The Ohio State University to work with Dawn Kitchen. In the summer between programs, I hoped to TA for a field course in Costa Rica, but the enrollments weren’t high enough to need me. It worked out well for me, because I quickly developed a project on the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo, and a friend at the zoo introduced me to the endocrinology lab manager, who needed volunteers. So I spent the summer divided between weighing many kinds of animal feces to prepare them for hormone extraction, behavioral observations on big cats and pachyderms for the lab manager’s project, learning how to do hormone assays, and collecting data on my spider monkey project. Although my major interest was in juvenile spider monkeys, there were only adults, and I decided to do a project on female social relationships. By the end of the summer, I decided I wanted to do my dissertation research on female social relationships and stress.



At Ohio State, I worked on coursework, and began writing grants for my project. The following summer, keepers at Brookfield collected fecal samples from the monkeys before and after a veterinary exam, so that I could determine that stress hormones (or rather, the broken down hormone metabolites within the feces) could accurately be used to indicate stress. While the monkeys back at Brookfield were stressed and pooping, I co-instructed a field course in Primate Behavior and Conservation at El Zota, and then stayed an additional month to collect pilot data to test out my methods. When I returned, I continued with coursework and grant-writing, and took my candidacy exams (the scariest, most intense grad school hurdle). I received a Wenner-Gren grant in the fall, and began my 15-month period of fieldwork in June 2010 (you can read some of my field stories at SpiderMonkeyTales). I returned for good in August 2011 (I did take a few trips back to the US during my fieldwork). I had a dissertation-writing fellowship for that academic year, and defended and submitted my dissertation in December 2012 (though my official graduation was in May). Spring 2013, I taught Intro to Bio Anth at Ohio University (3 days of a week commuting over 3 hours roundtrip!), and worked on a proposal studying social relationships in bonobos at the Columbus Zoo. I spent the summer collecting data, and moved down to North Carolina shortly before courses started. This summer, I will be collecting comparative data on the chimpanzees at the North Carolina Zoo. The road getting here has been very difficult, but I love my research and teaching at Wake. However, my position is only one-year (filling in for Dr. Miller while she is on sabbatical), so I’m still waiting and hoping to find out where I will end up next year.

My favorite primates are spider monkeys (particularly the Central American black-handed spider monkey, Ateles geoffroyi), but bonobos (Pan paniscus) are a very close second. You will be hearing a lot about them in the upcoming semester!




About Dr. Michelle A. Rodrigues

I am a primatologist/biological anthropologist who studies comparative social behavior and endocrinology. My dissertation research focused on stress and friendship in female spider monkeys. Most of my graduate research was conducted at El Zota Biological Field Station, with a little help from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo, IL. I have also studied howler monkeys, rhesus monkeys, bonobos, and chimpanzees, as well as participated in studies on gorillas, pachyderms, and big cats. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, where I am examining how female friendship and social support mediate stressors experienced by teenager girls and female scientists. I've taught courses in introductory biological anthropology, world prehistory, and co-instructed a field course in primate behavior and conservation at El Zota. I love teaching about primates and evolution!
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