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.”
Ellen Furlong '03 worked with dogs all through high school, in obedience training and in shows, so when she arrived at Transylvania, she was interested in animal cognition. She also thought that if she wanted a career working with animals, she'd have to be a veterinarian.
But 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?' "
Furlong is devoting her career to finding answers to that question, putting both her Transylvania math major and psychology minor to good use.
After graduating from Transylvania, she earned a master's and Ph.D., both in developmental psychology, at The Ohio State University before securing her current post-doctoral fellow in primate cognition at Yale University. Furlong plans to become a college professor in that subject.
At first glance, math might not seem the best choice for a career involving so much psychology, but Furlong says the logic, proofs, and theoretical thinking involved have great value. "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."