Interested in joining Dr Margulis's Research Team?

I’m glad you’re interested in gaining research experience. Animal behavior can be very exciting and rewarding but also at times very tedious and boring…that’s the reality check. It’s important to find a research project that interests you—that will make it a good experience for you, and for me.

In order to conduct any type of research, one must acquire specific skills. This can take time; the learning curve may be steep, but that’s fine. Everyone learns at their own pace, and it’s important for you to gain a certain level of confidence and proficiency in order to succeed.

Current research activities:

At present, most of my data are conducted at the Buffalo Zoo. Behavioral data are collected on Buffalo’s gorilla group using a palm-pilot data collection system called EthoTrak. The primary purpose of these observations is to establish a “baseline” of normal behavior for the gorilla group. This allows us to then systematically examine the effect of environmental or social changes on the gorilla group; for example, the addition or removal of an individual, a diet change, or a new type of enrichment. This also provides a rich source of data for a variety of applied research questions.

 There are several steps to becoming part of the gorilla research team:

 1.    Learn to reliably identify all the gorillas (pretty easy, really).

2.    Become familiar with the ethogram, or catalog of behaviors, that we record.

3.    Learn how to use EthoTrak.

4.    Pass an “observer reliability” test.

Once you have accomplished this, you’ll be scheduled for 1-2 observation sessions a week at the zoo. Sessions last about 90 minutes, and are conducted between 9:30am and 4pm (pretty nice hours, as long as it works with your class schedule).  Only 1 observer is scheduled at a time, so you must be able to get yourself to the zoo—but it is quite walkable from campus.

If this doesn’t fit your schedule, some observations are collected on videotape. These can be viewed on campus, so the scheduling is far more flexible.

In addition to these projects, other research projects may be done on campus using one of several data sets that have already been collected. Most of these involve data on primate behavior. Some of this research involves using data from Studbooks—the detailed demographic and genetic information maintained by Species Survival Plans (SSP’s) managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). I oversee the white-cheeked gibbon SSP. If you like number-crunching, looking for patterns, and doing library research, this might be just the thing for you. You may find a behavioral data set of interest, or perhaps join the Gibbon team.

Finally, this year I will be setting up a fecal hormone extraction laboratory (the first step in hormone assay). Measuring hormone concentrations is an excellent way to validate behavioral observations and can provide valuable information for zoos: reproductive condition of animals, measures of stress hormones, etc. So, in the near future, more research opportunities will arise involving hormones and behavior. 

You may be interested in conducting your own research project. That’s great, and I am always happy to facilitate this. However, expect to spend at least a year on an ongoing project before venturing off on your own research.

Levels of involvement:

If you are interested in participating, you should plan on coming to the zoo with me or one of the experienced student researchers to get a sense of what the observations are like. If you feel that this research would be a good fit for you, there are several levels of involved.

  1. Volunteer. If you aren’t sure if this is right for you, volunteer for a semester. This will help you decide if the research is a good fit for you.

  2. Register for academic credit (under Research Seminar or other suitable course title). This is usually a 1-credit course. Once you are trained, I would expect you to complete at least 2 observation sessions a week along with some data work on campus.
  3. Apply for a specially funded research assistantship (under the CEEP/HHMI programs or other applicable grant).

Even if you are volunteering, think in terms of 4-6 hours per week as the least amount of time you will be putting into the project.  Training observers takes a considerable amount of time, and it is not until you are trained, pass reliability tests, and “graduate” to the research team that you are truly making a contribution to the project. It’s likely to take you several weeks at mimimum to learn the skills you need to collect data. Then you’ll need to practice, on your own or with another researcher, until you are completely comfortable with the procedure. At this point, you may take an observer reliability test and formally begin to collect “real” data.

Please keep in mind that there are many students who wish to gain research experience. As much as I would like to accept everyone who is interested, I just may not be able to accommodate everyone. I will certainly help you to find other valuable research experience at Canisius or at the zoo.


Dr M

Contact Info: Michael Noonan, PhD, Canisius College , 2001 Main St., Buffalo, NY 14208