|During a lecture visit to Transylvania in February 2011, Ellen Furlong ’03 stopped by the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville, Ky., where she worked while a Transylvania student. She’s shown with a brown tufted capuchin, the species of monkey she now works with in her research as a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University.|
Ellen Furlong '03 / Monkey business: The serious study of primate cognition
Ellen Furlong ’03 came to Transylvania knowing she wanted to be involved with animals in some way for her career, but she was a little vague on just how that would play out.
“I worked with dogs all through high school, in obedience training and in shows, and was interested in how they learned,” Furlong said. “So I was interested in animal cognition at a very basic level, very early on. But at that point, I thought if you worked with animals, you had to be a veterinarian.”
After a summer internship at the Louisville Zoo that was facilitated by her adviser, art professor Nancy Wolsk, Furlong saw the light. While sweeping out straw around the orangutan cage one day, she witnessed a demonstration of cognitive ability that was totally unexpected. It left an lasting impression.
“I didn’t want to get too close to the cage and have them grab the broom or me,” she recalled. “As I was hemming and hawing about what to do, the orangutan came over, sat down, and 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 is going on here?”
Finding answers to that question is one way of defining what Furlong is now devoting her career to. She focuses on primate cognition in her work as a post-doctoral fellow in the psychology department at Yale University and plans to become a full-time college professor in that subject.
Furlong works primarily with brown tufted capuchin monkeys in her research, but her interests in primate cognition are broad, reaching across the primate spectrum and throughout evolution, and include humans.
“I’m interested in the cognitive skills that underlie our decisions and how they changed across time and across evolution,” Furlong said. “I take a developmental and comparative approach. You can do that in a small sense, in terms of going from two to five years old, for instance, or in a large sense across the primate order, looking at chimpanzees and humans.
“Humans stand apart from all other animals in their level of cognitive abilities, yet there are basic foundations of our reasoning and thinking abilities that we can see across species in a comparative sense, and across time in an evolutionary sense. Chimps and humans have a common ancestor, maybe 15 million years ago, and we believe the kinds of commonalities we see in the ways that humans and chimps think are common to that ancestor.”
Furlong majored in mathematics at Transylvania and completed a minor in psychology. She earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D., both in developmental psychology, at The Ohio State University, where she also was a lecturer in the psychology department for two years before securing fellowship funding at Yale.
At first glance, mathematics might not seem the best choice for a career that involves so much psychology. Furlong’s answer to that question shows both the value of math discipline to her career as well as the essence of a liberal arts preparation for a continuing education.
“What I find exciting about math is all the logic and proofs and theoretical thinking about the world that it entails,” she said. “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.
“But my Transylvania undergraduate work also 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 adviser, who is incredibly important. You get good training and a solid foundation at Transylvania. It was never a problem that I didn’t have a degree in psychology when I went to Ohio State.”
Furlong is thrilled to be at Yale—“It’s like Disneyland for scientists”—and working with Laurie Santos, a prominent scholar in primate cognition. Her current research looks at how bonuses affect performance. The experiment varies the size of the bonuses—in this case pieces of cereal—given to monkeys who are playing a computer game. She is seeing a disconnect from the idea that larger bonuses always result in superior performance.
“When we give them the largest bonus, their performance actually drops,” Furlong said. She relates this to a classical psychological finding known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, which reveals that we all have an optimum level of stress. The large bonus equates to increased expectations and heightened pressure to perform.
Studying primates with a leading scholar in the field at Yale is a long way from the dog obedience training that Furlong cut her teeth on as a high school student. She perhaps unintentionally summed up the fascination she holds for her work when she described a research experience involving a 260-pound chimpanzee, the largest primate she has worked with:
“They’re big, they’re scary, they’re aggressive—and they’re awesome.”
—William A. Bowden