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research furthers innovation and teaching at the University of Lethbridge | spring 08 vol 1 issue 2

Nature and Nurture

Dr. Louise Barrett examines how brain, body and world combine to create behaviourally competent individuals

Photo by Dr. Peter Henzi

It’s an age-old question: are we born as we are, or are we shaped into who we become? Finding the answer is a bit of a chicken-andegg scenario. Who would ever imagine that the key to understanding the nature versus nurture conundrum might be found in a troop of young baboons? The possibility of such an intriguing discovery happened, rather fittingly, through a natural course of evolution – or at least, evolutionary study. University of Lethbridge psychology professor Dr. Louise Barrett has spent the last 12 years observing two troops of baboons in Africa, monitoring all aspects of their development and behavioural patterns. What began as a grooming behaviour study evolved to other areas of research, each triggered in succession by new and fascinating observations of the monkeys while out in the field. And as far as nature versus nurture goes, Barrett believes the two are inextricably intertwined. “Our research topics emerge as a natural progression,” says Barrett. “If you’re out in the field long enough and paying attention, the animals show you what’s interesting. Every topic of our research has been started in a very organic way.”

After monitoring the patterns and habits of adult baboons for more than a decade, Barrett has turned her attention to the juveniles of the troops, investigating what makes young members of the species come to understand the world in which they live and their individual place in it. “Baboons don’t have the verbal means that humans do to teach their offspring how to function in society,” Barrett explains. “What we want to learn is how small baboons learn about their environment when no one can tell them about it linguistically.” Barrett and her research partner and husband, U of L psychology professor Dr. Peter Henzi, will be looking for physical and vocal signals adult members of the troop share with juveniles that allow the animals to learn how to function in the world and develop into competent, socially adept adults. While Barrett stands firm in the position that baboons are worthy of study as a species in their own right, she also acknowledges that connections between the primate world and the human world are clear and notable. “Baboons are a good model for understanding our own evolutionary

processes,” she says. “They have large brains, they’re very smart, they’re very social and they have long periods of development – all characteristics that are quite similar to humans.”

In addition to the physical and social similarities that baboons share with humans, Barrett sites the evolutionary history of baboons as a type of measuring stick for Homo sapien evolution. “Baboons differentiate into all kinds of subspecies that look and behave differently from each other, yet are not fully speciated,” Barrett explains. “They are also highly terrestrial and live in very open habitats. All of these characteristics are very similar to those of early humans, so understanding baboon evolution helps us to better understand something about human evolution.” Parallels duly noted, Barrett is quick to point out that we can learn as much about human evolution by observing the differences between ourselves and our primate cousins. “Every species has its own unique adaptations,” she says. “Similarities and

differences between species are equally informative. The link we can draw with human psychology and baboons is that the abilities we have as modern humans had to have started somewhere. We would have had our own set of evolutionary constraints, the same way the baboons do. Studying those constraints and how a species gets around them is what’s most revealing.” With the juveniles of the troops as her new area of focus, Barrett is concentrating on the social development of baboons aged 18 months to five years. Early observations indicate that the transition years for baboons between infancy and adulthood are equally dynamic and challenging to those of teenage humans. “Juvenile baboons are very fickle about who they hang around with. You have to be very aware of who is interacting with whom because it changes from one day to the next,” Barrett says. “What we’re seeing in the research is how adult behaviour gets shaped by the social structures of adolescence. We can predict what kind of adult an animal will become by observing their actions and interactions as a juvenile.”

Dr. Dennis Fitzpatrick

Vice-President (Research)

Serious Fun “There are some animals that play and some that don’t,” says U of L neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Pellis. “Why do only some evolve as playful?”

Welcome to the second issue of FIAT: Furthering Innovation and Teaching, in which we profile a number of U of L researchers who explore our continually evolving society. Research themes within this edition include studies on animal and human behaviour, the evolutionary process and emerging institutional ethics and practices. U of L researchers and students explore evolutionary themes to answer a variety of questions pertaining to genetic origins, human development, social relationships, determinants of health, personal growth and even business practices. By studying animal behaviour, we hope to discover insights into the development of human behaviour and find solutions to the societal problems stemming from that behaviour. This issue illustrates connections within our University that cross Faculty and discipline barriers. The profiles of a current post-doctoral fellow and graduate student provide evidence of the U of L’s commitment to engage students in research and discovery, enhancing their educational development. The researchers profiled here in FIAT are an outstanding exemplar of how we advance knowledge and solutions at the University of Lethbridge.

Dr. Jo-Anne Fiske

Dean of Graduate Studies

I am excited to see graduate students’ research profiled in this edition of FIAT. Today’s labour force requires more highly trained individuals, and universities are responding by developing a greater number of graduate programs or expanding existing programs. Graduate students bring energy and vision to the University of Lethbridge. They generate new ideas, offer new insights into existing problems and research challenges and offer new directions in the creation of new technologies. Graduate students occupy a unique position in our University.  While learning with and from their research supervisors, they in turn are role models and mentors for undergraduate students. Driven by intellectual inquisitiveness, creativity, vision and passion, they carry their work forward through diligence and commitment to steady, hard work. Editor: Alesha Farfus-Shukaliak Associate Editor: Jane Allan Photography: Glenda Moulton, Bernie Wirzba Writers: Caitlin Crawshaw, Natasha Evdokimoff, Tasha Diamant, Erica Lind Design: Sarah Novak Design Printing: University of Lethbridge Printing Services Correspondence should be addressed to: Research Services, University of Lethbridge 4401 University Drive Lethbridge, AB T1K 3M4 Phone: (403) 317-2869 E-mail:

Dr. Sergio Pellis Neuroscience

Pellis has spent his career trying to answer this question. A U of L Board of Governors Research Chair and the acting director of the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, he is one of the world’s foremost experts on play behaviour. Over the years, Pellis and his collaborator, wife Dr. Vivien Pellis, have hung out with a variety of fun-loving animals – from Australian magpies to warthogs – to study their play habits. More recently, they have concentrated on observing rough-and-tumble play in rodents, and they have discovered that there are gradations of complication in their activities. “The more evolved part of the brain, the cortex, seems to be involved when animals are seen making adjustments for their play partners’ strengths to keep the play fair,” says Pellis. “It’s interesting to observe that you’re not a fun playmate if you don’t play fairly.” Further, Pellis says play appears to be crucial for training animals in how to behave in social situations as adults. “The core feature of cooperative social behaviour is reciprocity, and rough-and-tumble play encapsulates that,” he explains. Other researchers have seen comparable patterns in primates – research that Pellis believes is important for our understanding of humans. “Humans are at least as sophisticated as rats or monkeys,” he says. “Research indicates our not facilitating play is harmful for children. The world is getting more and more complicated, and these days, children are always at the mall or in structured situations. Are we doing them a disservice by not providing opportunities for unregimented and beneficial play?” Sergio and Vivien are collaborating on a book, Making a Playful Brain, that will highlight the significance of their findings in play research.


Evolving SOCIETY Her Own Evolving Story Dr. Cynthia Chambers sees herself and her research as very much a product of her lived experience. Chambers grew up in northern communities, and much of her career’s work has centred on Aboriginal themes, particularly Aboriginal language and narrative.

Dr. Cynthia Chambers Education

Her PhD, for instance, focused on the storytelling quality of Indigenous people’s testimony in a federal inquiry. “Through their stories, I became interested in my own autobiography, and how growing up and living in the North influenced me,” says Chambers. “I started to share my own story with others.” Now as a member of the U of L’s Faculty of Education, Chambers encourages her students to write about their lives. She believes that students and teachers need to comprehend how their own experiences are crucial to understanding what they are studying and teaching. “Writing about life experiences is a way of making a connection between their world and the curriculum,” she says. “Now my mission as a teacher and a researcher is to elevate the story, particularly the life story. Through the use of narrative, I weave in theoretical discourse to help my students make sense of lived experience.” Fittingly, Chamber’s current Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded projects embody both sides of her story. One project involves working on life-writing with teachers. The other is an investigation of the literacies in an Arctic Aboriginal culture before the introduction of print. “One of the significant features of autobiography that also exists in Indigenous people’s storytelling is that we can begin to view the self in relationship – not only in relationship to self, but the self in relation to others and the land,” she says. “I believe I have a responsibility to pass that knowledge on to my students so that they can become the best teachers they can be.”

Health and Welfare As a public health nurse for more than 20 years, U of L health sciences instructor Sharon Yanicki has seen it all. Because of her experiences, this compassionate health promoter and educator is dedicating the next phase of her career to changing some of the critical problems she has witnessed. “My focus is on social inclusion and how to influence social policy,” says Yanicki, who is currently working on her PhD. “There is an evolution in our thinking about health. We’re moving from a biomedical and behavioural focus to looking at broader social determinants of health like income, working conditions, employment, transportation, education and housing.” Yanicki has proven adept at making connections in both the wider and local communities to enable changes in the way people think about health. Among other accomplishments, she served as executive director of the Alberta Public Health Association (APHA) for three years, and last year, she led a provincial collaborative effort that resulted in the first Alberta Public Health Summer School focusing on the determinants of health. As part of her research, she has also been involved with

Sharon Yanicki Health Sciences

various anti-poverty organizations that have made inroads into engaging communities to take action. In addition, she is planning to undertake her doctoral research in a small rural community and bring together the municipality, schools, church groups, family support groups and health-care providers to go beyond, as Yanicki puts it, “band-aid solutions to address child poverty.” Yanicki does all this while she continues to supervise nursing students in practicum placements throughout southern Alberta. She will also be teaching in the U of L’s new public health degree program starting in the fall. “Nurses see poverty every day but they may or may not be supported when they want to address the root causes of health problems,” says Yanicki – one nurse who is committed to a better way.

Birds, Genes, Dodgy Seals U of L zoologist Dr. Theresa Burg has (gently) tackled albatrosses, pried into their philandering behaviour and run a gauntlet of seals – all in her quest to find certain genetic markers in animals that could answer questions of origin and parentage.

Dr. Theresa Burg Biological Sciences

Burg holding an albatross Photo submitted

In Antarctica, Burg dodged seals to gather blood samples from albatrosses and dispelled the common misconception that these endangered birds are faithful to their lifetime mates. She discovered that 25 per cent of the birds have different fathers than their mother’s current mates. More than just interesting bird gossip, this is good news for conservationists trying to save the albatross from extinction. Burg’s albatross research will also help conservation authorities deal with albatross deaths through fishing. By studying the genes of dead birds, she can inform authorities about where those birds came from. This knowledge could lead to closure of fishing

lanes at specific times and prevent overfishing practices. Since joining the U of L in 2006, Burg’s fieldwork occurs in the warmer (but buggier) environs of North America and is focused on genetic markers in chickadees and woodpeckers. Her research shows evidence of the evolutionary changes in these birds since the last ice age. “There appears to be higher levels of variation in the species in areas that were unglaciated [not covered in ice] versus areas that were,” says Burg. “Understanding this phenomenon can help us to determine what process led to the creation of new species of birds.”

U of L researchers and students explore evolutionary themes to answer a variety of questions ... The Evolution of Marketing A few decades ago, marketing strategies were focused purely on profit. Corporations today have evolved more towards an attitude of social responsibility, and current marketing reflects this evolution. University of Lethbridge management professor Roberto Bello conducts research on the concept of social responsibility as well as the impact that corporate activities have on consumer behaviour. According to Bello, practising social responsibility means that corporations should acknowledge and act upon their accountability to consumers, the government and the community. He explains that such actions involve advising consumers as to the proper use and disposal of products, replacing resources taken from communities and hiring local people with fair salaries and benefits. “It is, to a certain degree, easy for marketers to influence public opinion. I think that power should be used not only to increase profit, but also to benefit society,” says Bello, who strives to instill this philosophy of social responsibility in his students. Bello also emphasizes the role of the consumer in the marketing process. “The Internet and other communication tools

provide consumers with the knowledge and power to pressure corporations to be socially responsible,” says Bello. “Corporations are increasingly realizing the importance of consumers’ opinions and are engaging in more open communication with them.” Unfortunately, true social responsibility has not yet permeated all industry sectors. Bello explains that some corporations use a strategy called green washing. “These corporations claim to be socially responsible, but they use social responsibility as a catch phrase and competitive advantage, rather than a corporate value,” he says. As consumer power grows, Bello predicts that marketing will evolve away from green washing and more towards true social responsibility – an evolution that will capture the attention of researchers like Bello as it unfolds.

Roberto Bello Management research furthers innovation and teaching at the University of Lethbridge

BEYOND Behaviour and Evolution Research Group examines everything from octopus behaviour to sexual preferences The subject of evolution typically brings to mind thoughts of apes and Charles Darwin, but it tells a larger story about how the world is organized, socially and biologically. The University of Lethbridge’s Behaviour and Evolution Research Group (BERG) is working to unravel the mysteries underlying human and animal behaviour of all kinds – from helping behaviour to mate selection – in evolutionary terms. “In all cases, basically you’re asking, ‘How did this behaviour evolve over the long term?’ Not only what is its functional or adaptive significance, but also the whole evolutionary history of the behaviour,” says BERG member Dr. Paul Vasey, a behavioural scientist in the Department of Psychology whose own work focuses on non-conceptive sexual behaviours in humans and Japanese monkeys. BERG has attracted a host of worldrenowned researchers from a number of different disciplines – including psychology, neurology and biology – who work together in an interdisciplinary fashion to answer research questions. “I really think that’s a strength because if you’re able to draw on the best of what different fields have to offer, that can be nothing but a good thing in terms of how you are able to conduct your research,” says Vasey. “Ultimately, we are trying to best characterize how the social or cognitive world organizes itself.” Vasey explains that, in addition to laboratory work, fieldwork is a major part of BERG research. Faculty and graduate students conduct research at sites across the world, including Independent Samoa, Belgium, Bonaire, France, Israel, Japan, South Africa, Panama and Texas. Both the fieldwork and the interdisciplinary nature of the research group are of enormous advantage to graduate students who receive mentorship from the entire research team, not solely their supervisors, says Vasey. Like BERG’s faculty, its graduate students are a diverse group and, like their mentors, many of these up-and-coming scholars seamlessly blend lab and fieldwork. Doctoral student Shannon Digweed is exploring the vocal calls of the red squirrel, a species known for being bossy and loud, but also for living independently. For several summers, she’s been tracking the squirrels in Alberta’s Sheep River Provincial Park, recording the alarm calls they make in the presence of predators to determine if their sounds are referential (acting as a ‘word’ referring to a particular situation). If the vocal calls are indeed referential, this could mean the squirrel isn’t only trying to deter predators, but is also alerting its peer species to danger (which would be surprising, since the species is solitary). This result would also suggest that referential sounds don’t require as much intelligence as previously thought (many assumed only largebrained mammals like monkeys were capable of this). “As humans, we bring so many biases to our research. Because we can do things this way, we automatically assume animals must be doing it this way too,” Digweed says. “In BERG, we try to take a bottom-up approach to things – start with the simple, and go from there.”

She adds that what she learns about squirrel communication can be extrapolated to many other animals – including humans – to learn more about how and why language is created. Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Danny Krupp’s research focuses on human behaviour, namely cooperation and conflict and mating behaviour. The cooperation and conflict portion of his work focuses primarily on how human faces affect decision-making. “I’m interested in how we can manipulate the way that faces look – we call them facial phenotypes – to bring out more or less cooperative behaviour,” Krupp explains. “The classic example is if faces look more like you – self-resembling faces – your psychology

Red squirrel

Photo submitted

Doctoral student Shannon Digweed Photo by Dr. Drew Rendall

“In all cases, basically you’re asking, ‘How did this behaviour evolve over the long term?’” Dr. Paul Vasey should be set up to infer that those faces are, in fact, kin.” Krupp is exploring whether a number of other types of faces – including healthy or unhealthy faces – have any bearing on willingness to cooperate. His research involves using experimental games, in which subjects can choose to help other players – whose faces are manipulated – or choose their own financial gain. He’s also planning a mate selection experiment to measure subconscious preferences of all kinds using a process resembling an eye exam (this will be the world’s second study using the technique). When looking into an instrument, subjects will receive images of static in their dominant eye (of which they will be conscious) and images of men and women in the other (of which they won’t). A square or circle will appear suddenly in the place of one of the images; whether the subject recalls the shape will suggest a preference. “The whole idea is that people attend to the things that they like. If you’re interested in men, you’ll pay attention to men; if you’re interested in women, you’ll pay attention to women,” says Krupp. “Attention has almost certainly been designed by natural selection to help guide decision-making. People are expected to pay attention to the things that matter to them.” Because BERG’s graduate students study a wide range of research topics, they benefit from the expertise of a team of faculty members who are eager to help them. Vasey sums up BERG’s approach to mentorship with an old phrase: It takes a village to raise a child. “A graduate student doesn’t just come into the department and become isolated and only interact with their supervisor. That’s absolutely not the way it is,” says Vasey. “The students really do interact with everyone and benefit

research furthers innovation and teaching at the University of Lethbridge

Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Danny Krupp

Dr. Paul Vasey (left) Photo submitted


FIAT is the University of Lethbridge’s research publication. Published in the fall, winter and spring, FIAT communicates and promotes the o...

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