I like sharing science with people; and that includes demystifying research by lifting the curtain and showing people the day-by-day stuff that my research project involves. Since I take to Twitter to give updates, quips, and yes wise-cracks, I tend to get a lot of questions - very good and interesting questions about what I am doing. I tweet about my research shenanigans under one of two Twitter hashtags: #DispatchesDNLee gives updates of my research adventures in the field when I study in Tanzania. #DNLeeLab gives updates of my research adventures in the lab here in the States, presently at Oklahoma State University. One of my Twitter peers suggested it was a good idea that I prepare a FAQ sheet (Frequently asked questions) about my research. I agree.
What *exactly* do you do?
I am an animal behavior scientist. I study animals in an effort to understand them - what they do, why they do it, how they do it and when. From my about.me bio:
I am interested in how ecology and evolutionary components contribute to the behavior of animals. My research involves examining consistent individual variation of behavior, sometimes called Behavioral Syndromes. My post-doctoral research at Oklahoma State University involves examining the African giant pouched rat (Cricetomys ansorgei) to determine the extent to which they demonstrate behavioral syndromes and if there is a genetic component to the behavioral differences.
My research style blends study perspectives from the three main fields of animal behavior: Psychology, Ethology, and Behavioral Ecology. I conduct both field and laboratory experiments while examining proximate and ultimate causes of animal behavior from the perspective of the natural history of the subject.
What is your research project about?
The official title is "Individual Variation of the African Giant Pouched Rat". This project involves examining the basic behavior and biology of this species with an end-game goal profiling individual's behavioral phenotypes and deciphering its genetic mysteries to see if we can predict individual behavioral tendencies.
Who funds your research?
The US Department of Defense funds an incredible amount of basic research. (Yea, I had no idea about that until I took this assignment.) Details of the funding and the goal of the project at this link.
The African Giant Pouched Rat, also called Gambian Rats or Pouched Rats (Cricetomys ansorgei, formerly referenced as C. gambianus) has been successfully trained to sniff out and locate land mines. APOPO, a humanitarian organization out of Belgium captures, breeds, and trains this species in Tanzania. The goal of my research is to understand this animal's basic biology. The research record on this species is very, very patchy. There aren't many papers about them and what little that has been published doesn't always provide a very clear and consistent picture of this animal's natural history.
How are African Giant Pouched Rats different from other rats?
African Giant Pouched rats are native to Africa. Lab rats, pet rats, and sewer rats are from Europe - Rattus norvegicus and/or Rattus rattus derived. My rats are more distant relatives of these rats. But the main difference is they are larger - much larger. A large adult hooded rat (common pet store rat and lab rat) is about 8 inches long and 350-500 grams. A 700 gram rat is considered obese. A newly weaned pup (2-3 months) weighs as much and is as big as an adult pet store or lab rat. Cricetomys can get up to 80 com long and 1-2kg in weight. They are quite strong, too. I cannot hold the average adult with my hand (I do have small hands) across its back. If they don't want to be lifted they simply bear down and you can't pick them up without startling them.
How did you become interested in African Pouched Rats?
The Principal Investigator of the award, Dr. Alexander Ophir, reached out to me summer 2011 (after he had gotten the award). He needed someone with expertise in field techniques, laboratory animal behavior, specifically animal personality research, and molecular techniques. Two out of three ain't bad; during my dissertation research I did field work and lab-based behavior observations to examine exploratory behavior profiles of prairie voles. When Dr. Ophir reached out to me, my curiosity was piqued - a charismatic, megafuana and all. Plus, I really, really like the opportunity to discover something about an animal from the ground up - my chance to make a mark in science, if you will. Although I had been running from genetics and anything in a wet lab, I couldn't deny the positive impact of expanding my professional skill set to include molecular genetics that this post-doctoral research opportunity would provide. But the clincher was the opportunity to travel and visit Africa. Once I confirmed that Tanzania was a safe country, I was ready to sign up.
Are your subjects tame?
No, none of my research subjects are tame. ALL of them are wild caught. They were all captured in Tanzania from nearby areas where I work when I do field research. These are wild animals. The animal I am holding in the picture above is a rat in landmine detection training at APOPO in Tanzania. These trained rats are accustomed to being handled. In fact, tolerance of human handling is the very first thing these animals are trained to do.
Have you ever been bitten?
No, I haven't. When I first started working with the rats I was nervous, as you could imagine. The Animal Care guidelines recommended handling with chain mail gloves - which we have on hand at all times; and I invested in Kevlar sleeves to be safe. But so far, so good. I am pretty fast. I mean I have insane cat-like reflexes. I can catch a cup mid fall. I'm a ninja.
How do you handle them?
Very carefully. I approach them very slowly and patiently. I use a cage to scoop them up into the box. I don't reach in and grab them at all. It stresses them out and they back into the corner facing you standing up. The risk of getting bitten or having your face pounced becomes very very high. For extra skittish and anxious rats I still use the box-scoop method but I abandon all of the slow movement and patience. I go fast and box them in, put a lid on the box and get it over with, otherwise they escape.
When startled they dash, they lunge, they climb, and they jump straight up into the air (or at my face). This species can easily jump 3-6 ft straight up into the air without a running start. And if they have the slightest bit of of grip they can climb vertically in a flash.
If they aren't startled then I carry them from place to place inside of a rodent cage. I can carry most animals in a cage or box like below. I let them out carefully removing top and let them climb out. Otherwise I quickly and carefully handle by the tail. The goal is to get them to the next secure location or apparatus as soon and as carefully as possible.
What type of tests do you in the lab?
I employ several 'traditional' behavior apparatuses designed and used by Psychology animal behavior scientists.
Novel food reaction (Hyponeophagia)
But my test arenas and apparatuses are bigger, much bigger!
Depending on your perspective (in this case if you were trained as a psychologist or ecologist) then your expectations of these tests vary tremendously.
In psychology, one expects animals and rodents in particular, to behave a certain way in these apparatuses. The focus is often on understanding the emotional state of the subject - anxious, bold, afraid, fearless. Or there is an emphasis to train the animal to perform a certain way. In ecology, the focus is more on operational definitions - reaction, latency, activities. Because they are not tame or domesticated, and very, very different than more commonly studied rodents, I have had mixed results with these types of tests. The animals are not responding 'as expected' - in this case as someone with a more traditional psychology background would expect. They don't behave in a typical fear way. I am an ethologist, so I don't have many 'expectations' of the animals. They perform how they perform. I use what I observe to build a list general behaviors to expect and perhaps I'll set an upper or lower limit of behavior responses. Whatever they do, I use it to try to understand what they do, why they do it, and how they do it.
Any other questions?