Graduate Students Health and Medicine Primate Behavior Research

Laura Graves, Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research

As part of my Master’s coursework, I conducted an internship at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research (Keeling Center) during the Spring 2011 semester. The Keeling Center provides an amazing opportunity for biological anthropologists with a focus in primatology. For primatologists who have an interest in captive primates, the center offers the rare opportunity to have access to multiple nonhuman primate species: chimpanzees, rhesus macaques, squirrel monkeys, and owl monkeys. The facility also employs some of the most influential primatologists in the world, providing the intern with an exceptional environment to learn and network. The center also employs research fellows, animal technicians, enrichment technicians, and research assistants, who have usually completed their Master’s work and are at the facility to assist the doctors with ongoing and new studies.
During my internship, I mainly reported to the research assistants and animal enrichment technicians.

Despite the many employees, the Keeling Center is very much an independent work environment, especially for the intern. There are some days where I did not see another individual. However, this is not because the facility is understaffed, but rather, it is a very large campus. Furthermore, each employee has multiple duties, and when live animals are involved few things can be put off until tomorrow. There is definitely a feeling that everyone is very busy, conducting research, meeting with colleagues, or ensuring the health and safety of the animals.

The specific role of the animal technicians varies from day to day. They are responsible for feedings and cleaning the cages, but are also responsible for conducting daily behavioral and health observations of the animals. The enrichment technicians are responsible for making new devices, filling them, and distributing them to the animals. They are also in charge of creating an enrichment program and devising a schedule of enrichment for the primates in their care.

During my internship I was able to shadow and assist in each primate area at the Keeling Center. My main project involved assessing the use of feeding enrichment devices by the squirrel monkeys. Dr. Lawrence Williams oversees all of the Neotropical primates and served as my internship supervisor. There are hundreds of studies researching the benefits of environmental enrichment for nonhuman primates. However, there are just a handful of studies that determine how much time the animals spend engaging with the device or who is more likely to use it (e.g., juveniles or adults, males or females). Enrichment can only be beneficial if the animals are actually using the device. Therefore, it is imperative that we determine who is using the devices, and for how long.

I was also able to help research assistants with a stress study that was conducted on the owl monkeys. To determine how stressful cage transfers are, they analyzed cortisol levels using hair. When I assisted the hair had already been collected and ground down . I was able to assist with weighing the hair and putting it into capsules for analysis. It’s a very meticulous task that takes a lot of concentration and a steady hand. After the hair is ground down it becomes basically dust and I had to measure out exactly .05 grams and make sure the entire amount made it into the capsule. I am very interested in stress and it was a great opportunity to see the physiological side of these studies.

I had an opportunity to assist with such a variety of things at the center. My internship was a great learning experience and really helped to prepare me for future research. The Keeling Center provides a perfect environment to truly understand the behavior of various captive primate species. It is also a great place to see and learn the different management techniques utilized for these different species. This is a great internship for those interested in conducting behavioral research, or those interested in the care of laboratory nonhuman primates.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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