Author Archives: Colby Cheshire

Demystifying the Research Process

This summer has been a whirlwind of highs (presenting my poster to faculty at Duke!) and lows (running incorrect models and wasting two whole days), but through it all my biggest takeaway is this: real people do research. It sounds so obvious– of course real people do research… But to me, it wasn’t.

In my mind, I thought that research was probably dominated by a bunch of uninteresting people with nothing to talk about but their gene or disease or phenomenon of interest. A sea of meaningless acronyms and esoteric vocabulary, perhaps, but not real people.

What I found, though, couldn’t have been more different. Obviously, people at the Alberts Lab are incredibly dedicated to our research, and accomplished, and distinguished. But, besides their academic and professional pursuits, they are still people with families and personal lives and pets. We are incredibly productive at the lab, but dogs are still welcome. We talk about specific oddities of baboon behavior and Dr. Alberts’ daughter’s dance recital.

For me, this atmosphere was incredibly reassuring. One of my biggest worries about pursuing research as a career was that it would be hard to find and make meaningful connections with others who were just as interested in science as I was but still enjoyed non-lab activities.

In fact, it’s just the reason I’ve decided to stay with my lab; I need the balance that the Alberts lab provides. I’ve also learned that I enjoy explaining research and presenting my findings to others who are genuinely interested in it. While I wasn’t originally looking forward to the poster session (or the rain I had to walk through to get to it), it was one of my favorite parts of the program. If I had to sum it up, I think I would say that I’ve learned that research might just be for me.

Social development in baboons is heritable

Social development in baboons is heritable 

Colby Cheshire

Mentors: Liz Lange, Ph.D. | Susan Alberts, Ph.D.

Departments of Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology

Social behavior is an important facet of baboon development and a determinant of fitness in adulthood. However, it is not yet known what environmental or genetic factors drive the variation observed in the timing of social development. We hypothesized that both genetic and environmental factors would affect the timing of social development. To examine the role of genetic and environmental effects on age at first groom and first agonism in wild baboons (Papio cynocephalus), we used environmental and demographic data from the Amboseli Baboon Research Project (ABRP). We then constructed several nested animal models to identify the best-fitting model via model selection. For age at first groom, the best fitting model included genetic effects, sex, and social group size, suggesting that these factors are determinant of the timing of this developmental milestone. These findings demonstrate that age at first groom is heritable, yet environmental effects are also important.

Watershed Issues of Watersheds

I really enjoyed Xitlali Ramirez’s talk, which focused on her research regarding the effects of urban development on local watersheds and their capabilities to act as insect habitats.

What drew me to her research was how much it stood out from a lot of what other people were working on. I’d heard about several genes in different species and lots of microtechnology from my colleagues’ other talks over the week, and hers was very different.

While listening to her describe the issues of rainfall runoff in developed watersheds because of concrete cover and the intricacies of the sedimentary effects of drainage pipes on creek beds and the possible contaminants causing ecological issues in the creeks themselves and their watersheds (she covered a lot!), I was reminded a lot of my APES class in high school. While in my class we mostly talked about theoretical issues and the possible effects of different forms of industrial activity or policy on the environment, Xitlali’s talk made these less-concrete (hahah) ideas seem more relevant to all of us; we live here, next to Ellerbe Creek and New Hope Creek!

It also reminded me of an issue Dr. Susan Alberts, the PI in my lab, was talking about in our last lab session. At he ABRP Camp in Kenya, which is quite remote, the well broke. While going without water for a time is something some of us might have experienced in our lives (whether through hurricane or a strong storm breaking a line), it’s a much more serious issue an an area that doesn’t have access to easy water replacements like bottled water. It’s easy for us, I think, to forget about all of the critical infrastructure that supports our research (and our modern lives!) until it breaks. I love that Xitlali was working on helping to repair some water systems that, if they did “break” would probably become huge problems for North Carolinians.

Phenotypic Puzzles

Every day in my lab, like many of my colleagues, is a bit different. I start of the day with a meeting with my mentor Liz and then get to work on modeling in R. Basically, we can train the computer to recognize patterns based on comparing the complex system of matrices of different possible causal variables of social behavior variation (like sex, social “status”, and access to nutrition). From training the computer this way, we can see which factors really matter. Because these models have to run millions of times and take several hours to finish (and we have several models that we’re always adding to), I get these started early in the morning.

I also read usually at least one paper a day that Liz and I talk about at our afternoon meeting. Often, it’s about baboon social habits or life, but sometimes they talk more about complex statistical analyses. For my part, it’s a lot of googling random words (like oncogenic) and asking Liz what the heck different things mean.

I’ve only “gone in” once, because it’s so much easier to run models from Blackwell where I already have all my computer stuff set up, but getting a tour of the lab was a highlight of my time so far! The huge lab room was pretty cool, but I really thought the records room was interesting. It has paper records of the entire project going back to the 1970’s.

I’m really looking forward to this Friday’s in person (!!) lab meeting. Zoom meetings can be nice because they’re so convenient, but I really miss seeing people in real life and really won’t miss the awkward Zoom-caused silences and interruptions that will (hopefully) disappear soon.

Finding Out is Better

This week I interviewed my amazing mentor Liz Lange. While she originally wanted to be a history teacher, Dr. Lange (who prefers being referred to as Liz) learned during her time at Canisius College that she had a real passion for science and research. She originally focused on researching the bioaccoustics of marine mammals like whales and dolphins. Pretty quickly, though, Dr. Lange learned that, while she liked whales, it was not what she wanted to spend the rest of her life doing. She then went to Clemson for her master’s where she researched fish that internally fertilize. For her Ph.D. she made the move to FSU where she continued her fish research, examining trade offs between long-term survival and short-term fecundity. Now in her PostDoc at Duke, Dr. Lange works with Susan Alberts researching baboon social behavior at the Amboseli Research Group with collaborators at Princeton and Notre Dame.

Something I’d never really considered before was the transience of a career in academia; Dr. Lange had moved from western New York to South Carolina to the Florida Panhandle in a few years. This prompted my next question: did she feel more “adult” in graduate school? The short answer is yes. Moving across the country, further away from family, requires independence and gumption. At the same time, though, other “adult” things, like starting a family and buying a house, were delayed until post-graduate school. Still, Dr. Lange said the prize of being a full-time researcher and researching animal behavior and evolutionary biology was well-worth these short-term sacrifices.

I also talked to Dr. Lange and Georgia Young, a ’24 Duke graduate working in the Alberts Lab who’ll be moving to UC Berkeley for her PhD, about deciding on a graduate school/program and they echoed one another in their support for choosing a graduate school based largely off of mentor and lab culture. Something I’ve noticed, though, in our all-lab meetings is that everyone in the Alberts Lab has a culture of valuing life outside of research, which is really important to me.

In terms of my own takeaways, I think our conversation was incredibly valuable. I’ve already learned that I love research in BSURF, so talking about the other aspects of  a career (life) in academia is most helpful. Mark Twain said “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.” I really enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to talk to Dr. Lange and Georgia and am looking forward to continuing to work with them this summer as well as working towards finding out if research is for me!

Monkeying Around With the Animal Model

This summer I’ll be looking at the degree to which social behavior is heritable in the Amboseli populations of baboons, including the age at first groom and age at first agonism of maturing baboons. Because age at first groom is correlated with baboon survival and thus fitness (see below,) we’re really curious to see the extent to which this behavior is determined by genetics.

The problem is that there are plenty of cofactors that can basically confuse statistical models we use to interpret our data. It’s difficult to know if one mother’s offspring tend to groom earlier because of their genetics or because they have higher access to resources because of their mother’s social position or because they have more maternal aunts, for example. Because of the statistical noise that all of these covariables introduce into standard linear models, we use something called the animal model to increase the statistical power of our tests by accounting for the possiblity of this covariation.

Something I’m especially looking forward to investigating is if the heritability of social behavior varies between various groups of studied baboons in the Amboseli basin. Because it lies at the boundary between Papio cynocephalus and P. anubis, most baboons there are hybrids to some degree. While we know that more anubis-like individuals experience competitive advantage against their more cynocephalus-like neighbors, it’s not clear why this is the case. Regardless, understanding the causes of this could be important to predicting demographic trends of baboon populations in East Africa.

Baboon distribution in Africa. Note that P. anubis and P. cynocephalus meet in Kenya. Photo courtesy of ResearchGate.

Relevant Papers:

  1. Alberts S.C. 2019. Social influences on survival and reproduction: Insights from a long‐term study of wild baboons. Journal of Animal Ecology 88:47–66,
  2. Silk J.B., Alberts S.C., Altmann J. 2003. Social bonds of female baboons enhance infant survival Science 302:1231-1234
  3. Archie E.A., Tung, J. Clark M., Altmann J., Alberts S.C. 2014. Social affiliation matters: both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships predict survival in wild female baboons. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281:20141261
  4. Kruuk Loeske E. B. 2004. Estimating genetic parameters in natural populations using the ‘animal model’ Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B359873–890
  5. Charpentier, M.J.E., Fontaine, M.C., Cherel, E., Renoult, J.P., Jenkins, T., Benoit, L., Barthès, N., Alberts, S.C. and Tung, J. (2012), Genetic structure in a dynamic baboon hybrid zone corroborates behavioural observations in a hybrid population. Molecular Ecology, 21: 715-731.

Nature and Nurture

If you’ve ever taken a biology class, you’ve probably heard of the nature vs nurture debate that asks what extent of behavior is based on genetics and what extent of behavior is based on experience. This summer, I’ll be working with the Alberts Lab and my mentor Liz Lange to investigate this question in baboons using genetic and social data from the Amboseli Baboon Research Project in southern Kenya.

Papio cynocephalus, the baboon species of the Amboseli Basin. Photo from Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.

While this work is incredibly exciting (who wouldn’t love working on a question older than Darwin,) I might be even more thrilled to just learn about what the scientific process is like. Asking (and answering) questions like “What does the life of a research scientist look like?” and “How is research coordinated across continents?” and “What is it like writing and publishing scientific papers?” at the same time that I do research myself is, to quote Camp Rock, too cool. BSURF-learned skills, including our very conveniently-timed “How to read a paper” talk, were also  incredibly useful even in this first week; I was able to apply them to the paper we discussed in our weekly Alberts Lab meeting. 

While researching the root causes of baboon behavior, asking questions about their own social development, I intend to nurture my own understanding of the the research process. Something I want to work on this summer is being comfortable working with people who are so much older and more knowledgeable than me. I’ll admit, it’s a bit intimidating being in a zoom call full of faculty and post-docs and Ph.D. students who have studied baboons for a way longer time than me. Something I realized, though, is that I have access now to an incredible array of resources, including the experiences and knowledge of my lab members, to draw and learn from that might be even larger than the Babase.