- Curriculum Vitae
I currently have two main areas of interest, both centered around animal cognition and linked by the idea that it is possible to use theories and models developed for research on humans to gain insight into animals. I have found that many ideas based on humans appear to be easily modified to create testable hypotheses for animal research, and that this type of methodological approach not only minimizes the need to “reinvent the wheel”, but also strengthens the our understanding of evolutionary relationships between animals and humans.
The focus of my dissertation research (with Dr. Curt Burgess, a psycholinguist in the Psychology and Neuroscience departments at the University of California, Riverside) was syntax and semantics in animal vocalizations. Dr. Burgess has developed a computer model, Hyperspace Analog to Language (HAL), which is used to detect global co-occurrence in language (for example, the idea that “street” and “road” mean the same thing, but don’t occur in the same sentence; they are essentially substitutable within context). I used HAL to examine animal vocal communication for evidence of this type of contextual organization, the existence of which would be compelling evidence for a high degree of cognitive capability. My dissertation dealt with 3 specific areas—humpback whale song, the speech of an African Grey Parrot, and the ultrasonic courtship songs of male mice bred as a model for Fragile X syndrome in humans.
Currently, my main focus has been on developing a research program around Eliza, another African Grey Parrot. I am interested in both language learning (parrots learn language via exposure, much like human children), and in cognitive abilities. I plan on adapting both intelligence and creativity tests for Eliza.
Additionally, I am interested in innovation in animals. My husband studies creativity in people, and we have brought together ideas from both of our fields to create a framework within which animal innovations can be studied. Secondary to this, we have identified (via literature review) distinct neurological structures which correspond to levels in our framework. I am also interested in how current methodologies in both creativity research and psychological research in general, such as consensual assessment or inter-observer reliability, can be applied to observational studies of animal behavior.