Insights from Animal Behaviour Researcher, Lauren Brent

By Marian Shivji

Dr Lauren Brent from University of Exeter is a biologist interested in the evolution of sociality. Her research asks why social relationships are formed and how they are maintained. Lauren tweets @ljnbrent

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We asked Lauren about her research…

What made you decide to become an academic?

I became an academic because I love the process of independent thought and inquisition. As a young student, I was especially fascinated by the natural world and the behaviour of animals and so could think of nothing better than to spend my time asking questions about how and why the things we observe in nature came to be.

How does your currently research fit into your further research ambitions? 

My main research ambition is to gain a greater understanding of the evolution of social relationships. In particular, I am interested in why social bonds (“friendships”) evolved – i.e. what function do these relationships serve? – and why some individuals are more or less socially integrated than others. I am currently working on a few different but related projects; one on the evolutionary mechanisms that underpin cooperation, and the other on the consequences of social relationships for survival and reproductive success.

Both projects take place at the long-running rhesus macaque field site in Puerto Rico where I do much of my research, and fit nicely into my research ambitious by addressing some of the key unanswered questions in my field.

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This is a picture of two rhesus macaques relaxing at the field site in Puerto Rico where I do a lot of my research

If you had unlimited funding what would you do with it?

With unlimited funding I would initiate a series of field-based projects in species whose social lives are little understood. A key to understanding how and why friendship evolved is the ability to compare what “friends” look like in a range of different types of animals. But since the biology of friendship is a relatively recent area of research outside of humans and other primates, we are currently unable to ask this question.

Animals where data on friendship are missing and would be most useful include many types of mammal, such as the social carnivores, whales, rodents and ungulates, as well as many non-mammals such as schooling fish and colony-living birds.

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Friendships in whales is little understood, this is something that I would like to explore more about if I had unlimited funding.

Have you had any experiments that have been a bit disastrous?

I typically observe the naturally occurring behaviours in animals rather than running experiments. However, things can go very wrong doing this since wild animals almost never do what you want or expect them to do! Working with monkeys can be especially frustrating since they often live up to the cliché that monkeys are mischievous. While attempting to collect data I’ve been pooped on, peed on, shoved, hit, and had many pieces of equipment stolen and chewed beyond recognition.

What are your thoughts on crowdfunding research?

Crowdfunding of research is incredibly important. Research like mine often doesn’t require huge amounts of funding – just a bit of money for flights to field sites and for the few pieces of equipment needed to collect the data. Yet while low-cost research sounds ideal, it can be paradoxically excluded from traditional funding streams precisely because it is low-cost. Crowdfunding is therefore critical for this type of research.

Below is a TED talk by Lauren Brent…

Notes from Walacea:

Walacea’s first successful project was with Dr Andy Radford from University of Bristol, his research investigated friendships in dwarf mongooses, if you are interested in this area of research you can sign up to our newsletter on friendship. We also have a crowdfunding tips newsletter for scientists thinking about crowdfunding and a general newsletter where we share our favourite blogs about research and new projects raising funds that you can support.

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