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Ellen Furlong: Mathematics and monkey business

“My Transylvania undergraduate work demonstrates that what you need to succeed in graduate school are not the little bits of knowledge about your particular field. It’s knowing how to do research, how to construct an argument, and how to talk with your faculty advisor.”

The path Ellen Furlong '03 took to her current position as a post-doctoral fellow in primate cognition at Yale University may not be the most conventional. But, as she points out, sometimes the skills you develop as a liberal arts student—how to do research, how to apply logic, how to communicate your conclusions—are as valuable as the specific knowledge you gain from your courses. 

Ellen graduated from Transylvania with a math major and a psychology minor and then earned a master's and a Ph.D., both in developmental psychology, from The Ohio State University.

Throughout her post-graduate career, she has found the logic, proofs, and theoretical thinking required by her math major have been invaluable. "Every time I write a paper now, I write a math proof first, and then just flesh out the paper from there. And I do statistics every day in my research. I study number cognition in primates and deal with mathematical models."

Ellen Furlong

So how did a math major find herself studying primate cognition? 

Ellen worked with dogs all through high school, in obedience training and in shows, so when she arrived at Transylvania, she was already interested in animal cognition. 

During a summer internship at the Louisville Zoo, while sweeping straw around the orangutan cage, she witnessed a demonstration of cognitive ability that changed her path.

"I didn't want to get too close to the cage and have the orangutan grab the broom or me," she says. "As I was hemming and hawing about what to do, an orangutan came over, sat down, sort of assessed the problem, and then reached out with her arm under the bars and swept the straw. In that moment, I thought, ‘What's going on here?' "

Ellen intends to devote her career in academia to finding answers to that question. You can bet she’ll tap all of her own ingenuity, resourcefulness, and cognitive skills as she pursues her goals.

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