Chimp field research unglamorous but worth it for grad student

September 8, 2015

It sounds lovely: spending the summer on the golden slopes high above Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, watching chimpanzee groups go about their daily lives, working at the world-famous Jane Goodall Institute.

But the reality for one graduate student this past summer was quite different. ASU graduate student Joel Bray observes chimpanzees in Tanzania. Joel Bray, a graduate student in evolutionary anthropology at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, spent the summer observing chimpanzees in Tanzania. It was hard work and often boring — but also at moments amazing, he said. Photo courtesy Joel Bray Download Full Image

Up at 5 a.m., breakfast a boiled egg (if he was lucky), a long hike up steep hills, and then long days noting observations and being bored.

There was also a cobra living in the toilet.

For Joel Bray, research is not a walk in the park

“Whenever I, or others in my position, talk about our work to the public, it sounds really exciting,” Bray, a graduate student in evolutionary anthropology at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, wrote on his blog, Primate Dream. “Or when I post photos, it looks incredible. But it’s actually pretty awful. Most of the time we are either sweating out or beyond bored. … Ultimately, though, there is very little that is appealing about what I do, except for the briefest moments when I think to myself, ‘My God, a chimpanzee is literally walking beside me.’ ”

Being patient is an acquired skill, Bray said. When the chimps sit, you sit.

“I think all primatologists have it to some degree, or else we’d never come back to the field a second time, but I’m not sure that I have fully developed it even after several field seasons,” he said. “I am easily bored, and sometimes I have to give everything I have to maintain my sanity while waiting for a chimp to do something. Anything.”

When the chimps move, you move.

“It’s amazing how fast they can traverse thick vegetation,” Bray said, adding that he does not share that skill, especially when they’re cruising up and down steep ravines at top speeds. During those times, he relied on his Tanzanian research assistants, who were very adept at following the chimps. However, “at the end of the day, if they don’t want us around, they can easily do it,” he said.

It was Bray’s first time at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Gombe Stream Research Center. It was his fourth research trip to Africa to study primates, following two trips to Uganda to study chimpanzees and a trip to Madagascar to study lemurs. “I consider myself fortunate,” he said.

On his blog, Bray broadly describes his academic interests as revolving around “what ways primates and humans are both similar to and different from other species, and how we came to be this way.”

“If we want to answer questions about our human origins and evolution, we have to study our nearest living relatives,” he said.

Ian Gilby, assistant professor and faculty member of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is his faculty adviser.

“One of the goals of the research group here is to understand what’s different about humans,” said Gilby, who is also a research affiliate of the Institute of Human Origins at ASU.

Bray’s immediate task in Tanzania was to test and implement laser photogrammetry, a method of collecting data on body size using digital photography and lasers. Collecting body-size data on large animals is difficult, for many reasons. This was the first time laser photogrammetry had been used at Gombe, he said.

“Body size is key to lots of things,” Gilby said, noting that the chimpanzees at Gombe are much smaller than the chimps Bray studied in Uganda. Gilby did his PhD at Gombe, finishing in 2004.

“There are guys who are constantly beating up other chimps,” Gilby said. “If you’re a little guy, you might choose a different strategy. If you’re a big guy, beating up everyone all the time might work just fine for you.”

The Gombe chimps have been studied for 55 years now, since Jane Goodall and her mother stepped off a boat onto a beach in 1960. A handful of chimps at Gombe have been followed from birth to death. A 55-year-old female named Sparrow is still there. Bray saw her twice last summer.

“We’re just beginning to get full lifetime follows of chimpanzees,” Bray said. “To follow a single individual takes a long time. … We’re only just beginning to answer those questions.”

The ideal subject for a day of observation is a big group, Bray said, viewed from 26 to 32 feet away.

“Ideally you follow them randomly,” he said. “You don’t want to follow the first ones you see, because they might just be a family that lives near camp.”

Chimps will pass researchers on a trail without a glance. They rarely interact with observers. “If they do, you turn around or walk away,” Bray said.

Baby chimps spend a lot of time looking at researchers. They lose interest over time. “Adults that are fully habituated rarely look at you,” Bray said. “It depends on their comfort level.”

“Different chimp communities behave in different ways,” he said, comparing his Uganda experience to his Tanzania experience. “Having that perspective is really cool. … Having experience at two different sites helps me understand why they’re different.”

He wants to go back, probably for a full year, once he has decided what his dissertation will be.

Another link between ASU and Gombe is Gilby, co-director of the Goodall institute’s long-term database, which is here at ASU. Currently he works with new data generated every day at Gombe.

“It’s a pretty big deal having all the data (from Gombe) here,” Gilby said. “It’s a great opportunity for ASU.”

Field notes from a young primatologist: Excerpts from Primate Dream, Joel Bray’s blog

“We track, follow and observe, hoping to learn the secret to being a successful chimpanzee. In general, the recipe is pretty standard, not much different from any other primate. Find food, defend access to mates, groom others, make friends, raise kids, rinse and repeat. Add a dash of chimpanzee-specific socioecology, and there you have it. Of course the details are ever more complicated and fascinating — and in most cases, yet unknown. Depending on your perspective, that’s either a very wonderful or very unfortunate thing.” — from "Reflections from Paradise," Aug. 1, 2015.

“Did the reality of Gombe meet my expectations? Woody Allen said, ‘The talent for being happy is appreciating and liking what you have, instead of what you don’t have.’ With that in mind, despite the summer’s backdrop of frustrations regarding the lack of food in the forest, and therefore the lack of consistent grouping, I’ve had a lovely and relaxing time alongside some of the most wonderful animals in existence.” — from "Reflections from Paradise," Aug. 1, 2015.

“I find myself reaching a place of serenity in the forest. The sounds of crickets, the chirping of birds, the barks of baboons, even the hissing of the termites. As the forest hums with activity, with the lake stretching out beneath the rolling hills in front of me, I sit back and embrace the solitude. What we lose by letting go we get back in a different currency.” — from "Forest Observations," June 23, 2015.

Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU News


ASU tops U.S. News & World Report list of most innovative schools

September 8, 2015

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

Arizona State University tops the list of “most innovative schools” in the newly released U.S. News & World Report college rankings for 2016. Wrigley Hall at ASU U.S. News and World Report listed Arizona State University at the top of “most innovative schools” list in the newly released U.S. News & World Report college rankings for 2016. ASU's Wrigley Hall, pictured, is home to some of that innovation as it houses the School for Sustainability. Download Full Image

“Most innovative” is a new category for the widely touted set of annual rankings by the news magazine, which compares more than 1,500 institutions on a variety of metrics.

ASU topped the list based on a survey of peers. College presidents, provosts and admissions deans around the country nominated up to 10 colleges or universities that are making the most innovative improvements to curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities.

Though, it’s not just college officials who are noticing ASU’s innovative atmosphere.

“ASU provided us with so many opportunities to excel in entrepreneurship and other projects,” said Jared Schoepf, who was on a team of undergraduates who launched a startup called SafeSipp, which designed and produces water-purifying devices for developing countries.

“We went to several competitions and we realized that ASU gave us that upper edge to compete.”

After ASU, the four most innovative universities were Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Maryland – Baltimore County, Georgia State. Half of the 28 universities on the list, like ASU, are public.

ASU has launched several unique programs in the past few years, including several focused on widening access to higher education, which is a mission of University President Michael Crow.

Last year the school announced the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, a partnership with the coffee company that offers full tuition reimbursement to Starbucks employees who pursue an online degree through ASU. And this fall saw the debut of ASU’s Global Freshman Academy, in which students can take online classes and decide after completion whether they want to pay for the credits, which are offered at a rate of $200 per hour.

ASU is also exploring better ways to teach. Several hundred freshmen are participating in a new project-based learning pilot this year called ProMod. The program combines instruction in general education and students’ focused areas of study while they tackle real life problems. Faculty are researching whether the students are more likely to complete their degrees than students who take classes delivered in the traditional way.

Sometimes innovation comes in the form of foresight.

The W.P. Carey School of Business, which maintained its top-30 ranking for undergraduate business schools in the magazine’s listings, was among the first to create a master’s of science in business analytics, in which graduates learn how to harness the power of massive amounts of data. The program, which was started in response to industry demand, has tripled its enrollment in the two years it’s been offered.

“Ranking in the top 30 for the past decade is a testament to the ability of faculty and staff to focus on individual student attention and program excellence at the same time,” said Amy Hillman, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business.

For students, the approach to innovation can be both academic and practical.

“It’s spectacular what they allowed us to do,” said Schoepf, who is now pursuing his doctorate in chemical engineering at ASU.

Schoepf and his team launched their product as part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service program at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.  He said they won several grants totaling more than $50,000 to launch their product, including rent-free manufacturing space provided by ASU.

Among the other U.S. News and World Report rankings, ASU was 8th in “best online programs” and 16th for faculty commitment to teaching undergraduates. ASU also appeared on a list of 92 universities touted as being “A+ schools for B students,” where “nonsuperstars” can thrive. That list was presented alphabetically, not ranked.

But creating a culture of innovation is more than starting separate programs across the university.

“You do need to create a sustainability of innovation across the breadth of the university - a little pocket here and a little pocket there just doesn’t do it,” said Dave Guston, founding director of ASU’s new School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

He credits President Crow with fostering a foundation for innovation.

“The faculty members feel very comfortable crossing boundaries and engaging in collaborations that at other institutions would be treated with something between indifference and hostility.”

Guston said that culture of innovation has helped recruit faculty to ASU.

“Basically, the faculty we’ve brought into the new school are coming specifically to do things they felt they were not able to do at their home institutions.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter, ASU News