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Interview With Dr. Lauren Highfill: Animal Cognition and Personality

February 20, 2024

Today we have the opportunity to interview Dr. Lauren Highfill. Dr. Highfill is a Professor of Psychology and Animal Studies at the Eckerd College on Florida’s Gulf Coast. She teaches Introduction to Psychology, Biopsychology, Animal Cognition, Statistics, and Practicum in Animal Studies. Her research interests include animal personality, comparative cognition, and conservation psychology. She has worked with a variety of species including elephants, orangutans, and dogs. You can find out more about her work on her lab webpage.

What inspired you to pursue a career in psychology and animal studies? How have your life experiences shaped your current research?

I stumbled into an Animal Behavior course by accident during my freshman year of college. I was standing in line to register for spring classes when they announced that Developmental Psychology was full, so I quickly had to choose a different class and I saw Animal Behavior. That semester it happened to be taught by a visiting professor - Dr. Gilbert Gottlieb - who was renowned for his theory of probabilistic epigenetics. His class opened my eyes to a whole other world of psychology that I hadn’t known existed until that point. During my junior year, I completed an internship in a rat lab at the Environmental Protection Agency, then after college I gained experience working in a fish lab in Vienna, Austria as a Fulbright Scholar. In graduate school I turned my attention to non-lab animals and studied marine mammals both in the wild and in captivity. All of these experiences provided me with unique perspectives and experiences that I still use today.

As a professor who led the creation of the Animal Studies at Eckerd, what challenges did you face while establishing the program? What makes this program unique and what can students expect?

Creating any new major comes with many logistical challenges. For example, we officially launched our major in 2019 with one (and a half, if you counted me) faculty. We had to rely a lot on the willingness of colleagues in other disciplines to create new animal studies courses, such as Animals and Religion or Knowing Animals through Literature. We were lucky to have very supportive colleagues who were willing to step up and make the launch of this interdisciplinary major successful. Another challenge has been our rapid growth. In just five years, we are one of the largest majors on campus. This is wonderful, but also challenging due to not enough man/womanpower to handle the interest. I think our program is unique because we are centered around a foundation of animal behavior, but also have a strong interdisciplinary approach to studying the relationship between humans and animals. Also, Eckerd is perfectly situated as we have so many wonderful animal-related organizations around Tampa Bay that support our students with volunteer work and internships.  Finally, all of our faculty members in Animal Studies are active researchers and provide our students with unique opportunities to gain research experience.

Starting the Eckerd College Comparative Psychology Lab (ECCPL) must have been a significant undertaking. How did the lab start and what’s in the lab’s future?

When I arrived on campus in 2008, one of my new psychology colleagues introduced me to his student, Sarah Nadler, as she was considering transferring to a different university so she could focus more on animals. Sarah was my first research assistant and hit the ground running. She and I would come to the lab almost every weekend to collect data on dog cognition. She is the one who created and launched the ECCPL. She had the vision for creating a space for undergraduates at a small, liberal arts college to get a taste of graduate work. I’ve approached the lab as a student-run and student-focused group ever since. As a side note, Sarah (now with a master’s degree) teaches for our Animal Studies program, and we are once again collaborating on dog cognition research! We’ve come full circle!

Could you share with us a memorable project or experiment conducted at ECCPL that has significantly contributed to our understanding of animal abilities?

Teaching at an undergraduate institution, I pride myself more on the experiences I afford students rather than the results of any of the experiments.  My students get to be involved with every step of the research process from literature searches, to data collection, to publication!

How do you integrate your research on animal behavior into your teaching?

I often use my personal research video clips in class to demonstrate concepts. Also, I have students conduct their own research experiments in my animal cognition class, so they get a taste of the joys and challenges of studying animals.  

Your research encompasses a wide range of species, from dolphins to dogs. Could you share with us one of your most surprising or enlightening findings in animal cognition or personality?

The one study that people find most interesting was a personality study I did on dolphins. These dolphins were housed at MarineLife Oceanarium in Gulfport, MS during Hurricane Katrina.  A subset of the group were actually washed out into the gulf during the storm, subsequently rescued and relocated to Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. We had collected surveys on the personalities from their MarineLife trainers prior to the storm and then had totally new trainers from Atlantis complete the same surveys after they had been relocated. Fascinatingly, the majority of the dolphins were rated the same by their new trainers, indicating that their personality characteristics were consistent and stable even after dramatic circumstances. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your project with the orangutans? What surprised you the most while working with them?

ZooTampa at Lowry Park reached out to me to see if we could start an observational study with their large group of orangutans. It has been such a great way to involve students in research, as getting to watch orangutans behave is always fun! Last summer, half of the group was moved to another zoo, so we are now examining whether there are any changes in their behaviors after this big change in their social group. Stay tuned on those results! 

For individuals aspiring to work in zoo related professions, particularly in roles focused on animal behavior, what advice would you give based on your experience and research?

 Try to gain as much experience as you can! Volunteering and interning are great ways to see if the field is right for you. Also, don’t limit yourself to certain animals as studying any animal’s behavior is relevant. If you don’t have access to a zoo/aquarium, check out your local animal shelter or even offer to walk the dogs in your neighborhood. The more experience you can get with animals, the better!

Your profile picture at the ECCPL’s website is with Harry the Sloth, an ambassador at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. Can you share any insights into the importance of ambassador animals in education and conservation?

Ambassador animals are meant to pique curiosity and inspire guests into wanting to learn more about animals and contribute to their conservation efforts. Anecdotally, I have heard from many of my students how their experiences as a child at a zoo or an aquarium fostered their adult interests in animal behavior and conservation. However, it is important that we conduct more scientific research to see if ambassador programs are actually inspiring guests in the way we think they are. 

Last but not least, do you have any funny anecdotes about working with animals?

The dolphins we studied at MarineLife Oceanarium loved to play ball with humans. When we were there for behavioral observations, we would ignore their ball tossing initiations. However, the dolphins didn’t seem to want to take no for an answer and would often hit us square in the heads with a ball in an effort to get our attention. We actually turned that into a mini-research project to see if the dolphins adjusted their ball tossing behavior when we were facing them or facing away…and turns out they did!