Every Animal Has a Different Reality

One of the many things that I look forward to each week is to hear the faculty talks. While no one can predict what would happen in the future (to quote what Dr. Telen quoted from John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans”), I certainly learned a lot as the speakers shared about the journey they have traveled. Some stories such as that of Dr. Telen, Dr. Kontos and Dean Klotman led me to appreciate a field of biology and the people in that field. Some like that of Dr. Lefkowitz imbued me with so much joy and energy. I was grateful to hear Dr. West saying that never to worry where you will be too much. Nevertheless, through the faculty talk series this summer, I certainly found more strength and excitement as I look forward now.

One talk that particularly fascinated me was Dr. Nowicki’s. Dr. Nowicki’s lab studies categorical perception, using swamp sparrow as one of their models. Among the many interesting studies was the investigation on how female birds see colors. To see if there is a boundary to color perception in birds, the lab trained the female birds to learn that there were only seeds under bicolor pads. By adjusting how close the two colors are on the bicolor pads, the lab was able to find that birds see colors categorically rather than seeing them on a continuum. Nowicki lab cooperates with Mooney lab, which is the lab I’m currently in, to further figure out the neural circuitry underlying bird’s perceptions.

As someone who is very interested in animal behavior and has grown to love neurobiology (thanks to BSURF!!), Dr. Nowicki’s words really stuck with me: “every animal has a different reality”. What we perceive and project onto other animals isn’t necessarily the case for those animals. A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with my mentors on categorizing mice vocalizations. My mentor shared that many people analyzed the differences between mice vocalizations in different contexts. She said yes, they have found some differences carrying certain statistical significance, but how much do these differences weigh to mice? Do mice care about the subtle variations when they communicate to each other? Similarly, after observing a juvenile male vocalizing to an adult female but exhibiting no mounting behavior, I was confused if the vocalization should be counted as courtship-directed. Based on my human thinking, a baby boy speaking to a female adult is for sure not courtship. Yet, how accurate is that projection to mice? Something Dr. Nowicki said during his presentation that I will keep in mind forever studying animal behavior,

“we would be better at entangling the world if we jump out of our worldview”.

The faculty talk series with BSURF ended this past Thursday. But with this end, I’m more sure that it is only a start. Dr. Grunwald said that science is about communication. So is life. Thank you to BSURF and to all the faculty members who talked to us this summer for sharing their insights and for inspiring me to seek and appreciate more opportunities to learn from others.

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