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Science Put to The Test

By observing unique mammal groups and nonhuman primates, Duke University's professor Christine M. Drea incorporates anthropological aspects into her research while also discussing the methods she uses to make fascinating discoveries into animal behavior and development.


Rather than regarding herself as a true anthropologist, Drea instead emphasizes the importance of embracing the beauty of overlaps between different fields of studies.

"I've always been more interested in the scientific questions," explains Drea, "rather than a specific taxonomic group."

By using this integrative approach to structure her foci, Drea elucidates her passion for her work and the groups she studies, despite not being exclusive to one in particular. Her fascination with hyenas, meerkats, and various primate species specifically has allowed her to parallel certain findings with human behavior.

One of the key components in making these connections lies in the foundation of human interaction.

Drea makes it a point to acknowledge the significant role of socialization in human life. Examining the underlying mechanisms of social behavior in complex mammals becomes a tool to develop human understanding.

Using other species as comparisons has proven to lead to valuable discoveries that are not as readily studied in humans. With a multitude of logistical and ethical constraints on human experiments, Drea notes that other animals have made for useful model species that have allowed her and many other researchers to gain understanding.

When observing these species, she recognizes that every researcher has their own unique research process. For her, there are two components involved that include both field and laboratory approaches. Observing animals in their natural habitats and also in controlled environments has allowed Drea to study a subset of her subjects’ behavior from different, but complementary perspectives.

As she mentors her students on the benefits of combining captive work with observation of animals in their natural habitat, Drea also mentions the value of gathering samples from them to further gain insights into their ecology and health. In particular, she places importance on investigating fecal samples to monitor the animal’s hormones, parasite load, energetics, or gut microbes. Microbial ecology is the idea that one organism is not just its own being but also a host interconnected with trillions of other microbes. Animals thus play a role in preserving the integrity of their inner, biological communities, and gain many benefits to their wellbeing from doing so.

Through her research, Drea also regards the significance of a statistical standpoint that must be accounted for when investigating highly specific research questions. Depending on the sampling quantity taken, there are variables within the experiment that must be considered to assure the accuracy of the interpretation.

These include such things as individual identity, to acknowledge an organism's specific traits that may not generalize to all subjects.

Incorporating as many relevant variables as possible helps ensure the end results don't imply misleading conclusions about the animals.

Drea's process of discovery involves formulating a hypothesis and testing its various predictions. Confirming and meeting each prediction allows her and her students to see whether a particular hypothesis is likely to be correct. Each underlying prediction can be quite unique on its own and unrelated to another due to the overarching theme it falls under.

By using these strategic and investigative methods to guide her studies, Professor Drea gives us insights into the perspectives of a successful researcher. In her shoes, it becomes evident that a true research checklist goes far beyond what general high schooling requires, and research takes on a new definition full of necessary details. Each step is crucial for the success of the analysis, and one missed one may just make all the difference.

In the world of science, some may view the long way around as the less productive route to take.

But for Drea, there is value to the long-term study of animal development and in taking the time to thoroughly complete each step of the investigative process. Such an approach allows her to put science to the test and appreciate it for what it is with its awe-inspiring and ever-changing intricacies.

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