What Do You Get When You Combine Human & Computer Interaction with Primatology?

CATEGORIES: September 2016

This is the first year that our department is now home to graduate students, so we wanted to take the chance to get to know a few of them. First on the docket is Alison Lovett. Ali, PhD Student in Human and Computer Interaction, is a recent addition to the WLC staff as a Graduate Assistant in our Language Studies Resource Center. Ali studied Anthropology as an undergraduate at the Saint Louis University and as a Master’s student here at ISU with Jill Pruetz- focusing in Primatology. Now, she combines her Primatology background with her HCI PhD program to create something extraordinary.


Tell us about your earlier studies.

I did start out as a computer science major, and that was lovely, but not really what I wanted to be doing. I had taken Anthropology in high school which was fantastic opportunity for a semester as kind of a good crash course in all that is anthropology. And I loved it. I love bio, I love history, and it’s kind of this nice marriage of that stuff together. Then, I took a few courses in my university’s undergrad program and loved it. Switched my major to that. I’m really curious about the human condition and what makes people people, so I have my degree in philosophy as well. And those two things really helped me ask better questions, going forward.


So how did you become interested in Primatology?

Out of nowhere, a friend of mine who had no idea what anthropology actually was, but knew that I was potentially somehow involved with animals, mentioned that the Saint Louis Zoo was hiring, and I thought to myself “well I’m not doing anything this summer, might as well.” And I got the internship! I was also in the running for working at a museum at the time, doing an internship as well, but I ended up being a keeper with the great apes. That first day, just getting to be in proximity to [the animals] and actually see these things I’d been reading about for years made me realize that this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what, exactly, but something.


That summer must’ve been pretty amazing. What, in your studies would you say came from that experience?

I did a study in undergrad on gorilla diet. [I found out] they don’t like cabbages, and greens are a big part of their diet. I thought about how when people don’t eat they get cranky, so I wondered if they were getting cranky because they weren’t eating such a large part of their diet. The zoo ended up taking the cabbages out of their diet completely. Which was great; it had been a big problem when I was working there.


That’s so cool! You must’ve really made an impact on the lives of those animals. How else did you incorporate primatology into your undergrad degree?

For my senior thesis, I researched chimps and habitat use. I found that they were avoiding specific spaces- generally what I would classify as being eye-level for visitors. So that kind of led me going forward in my Master’s.


How did you end up at Iowa State?

I knew that I wanted to do primatology, but I didn’t know where. Jill Pruetz is here, and she’s amazing. I came up and visited, and they offered me a Teaching Assistantship and everything, so I gladly accepted!


What did you study once you got here?

I went forward and I studied visitor effects on gorillas because of that senior thesis. I was trying to look and see if there were any physical structures that created more pro-social behaviors for the chimps and was kind of recording what sort of habitats they were in while that was happening, and then I just found that it didn’t make sense- there was just this space of the habitat that there was stuff there, but they just weren’t spending any time there. And the only explanation that I could really come up with was visitor feeling.


Had you seen research on the topic before?

I don’t know if any other people have done like those specific studies, but people have done visitor density and how that affects behavior. No one was looking at who’s creating the disruptions. [I found that] teenagers were the most disruptive [to the animals], significantly, and adults created more of a response in the gorillas than children did. That was a really cool project, I really enjoyed that.


How does your current PhD project relate to that?

I started taking classes in Human and Computer Interaction (HCI) here and in my free time, as a hobbyist, I enjoy gaming, and I find the idea of online space as a cultural space really interesting- despite the fact that my research hasn’t been doing that, it was a side interest. So I took some more HCI, and I was like “I could do primatology with this stuff”, and a couple of people are doing some of these things at ACCI (Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative) right now. A woman is training them on joysticks to try to get them to move through virtual reality mazes. Apparently Kanzi (a bonobo at ACCI) has been playing PacMan. I’ve seen the video of it, I haven’t seen him play,unfortunately.


So you’re connecting Human and Computer Interaction with Primatology?

Well, we’re kind of in the planning stages of that. What really interests me is looking at spatial cognition and how we learn. And with the implementation of technology in everything, we need to be good at creating it. “What is the best way to convey information?”, “how do we group it together properly?”, and then my projects will take those questions and throw them into a nonhuman side, see if we can get that related sort of information.


What will that knowledge do for the field in the future?

Kind of create a stronger argument for stuff [about humans] that we already know, so take, for example, violence and gaming. There’s this one study where kids will either watch Power Rangers or Sesame Street, I believe, and then they have a contest for who can draw the best Elmo, and there’s only one red crayon. Kids who watched Sesame Street will break up the crayon and share it, kids who watched Power Rangers will fight over who gets to have the crayon. So how media affects sharing behaviors is interesting. So now, we’re trying determine if we show the same types of video (Sesame Street or Power Rangers) to the Bonobos or chimps or whatever nonhuman primate, we get to use- will their sharing be affected as well?


What sort of information has been revealed so far?

Studies kind of show so far that they’ll respond with increased reassurance behaviors- like increased grooming- and positive behaviors [if they watch the Power Rangers], but because there is a negative stimulus and not necessarily aggression in response, that’s really interesting. So what’s going on there? We’re going to try to move towards that.


So are you officially in Psychology now?

HCI is interdisciplinary. My home department now is Psych, but I’m going to have co-major [professors] with Jill Pruetz and Doug Gentile, so I’m going to kind of be everywhere.


That’s super exciting- a really interesting connection! So what do you see coming after your degree?

That’s the most difficult one because, really, anything. A lot of tech companies are hiring anthropologists and people who can do research on their online communities on how to better engage with women and minorities who have been neglected by those companies. Along with that, creating learning software and those types of things. I love research, being a professor and teaching is also an option and so, as long as I’m getting to do this type of thing, I don’t really care what I’m doing. It’s the research and getting to understand the world around us and ourselves better.


So this is one of these interesting challenges. I think that people are generally interested in the world around us. What it is to be human, but I think that sometimes there’s a challenge to do something that motivates you, that drives you, not just something that has a clear, decent starting salary.

Anyone can get a job that they don’t like and make money. So it’s important to like [what you do]. I could get a job wherever with my degree- I have a masters now- I could get a job I don’t like and make a decent living, but it’s so much more difficult to find something that gives you joy and gives you the drive to find something out.


Not just the getting a paycheck.

And not going through the motions. And it’s hard, it’s not like being in a PhD program is frolicking through the flowers every day, but it’s worth it. There’s something on the other end.


And that’s beautiful. These examples are interesting ones to have- it could be academia, something more corporate, or a generally educational outlet. But curiosity is one of those things that I try and tell my students “if something’s boring, it’s probably because you’re not curious enough” you’ve got to find something that you find interesting somewhere through some lens, and I think you’ve really been able to do that. Thanks for your time!