Texas A&M University zoology graduate Lisa O’Bryan ’08 spent so much time analyzing the communication habits of primates in the Tanzanian jungle for her doctoral research, she often found herself in situations where, for months on end, she was around them more than people.
O’Bryan, now a Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, has dedicated her career to understanding the role communication plays in the structure and function of social groups in animals, particularly baboons and chimpanzees, since her days as a graduate student.
“I’m fascinated by how animal societies operate,” O’Bryan said. “It’s created by a lot of independent individuals all interacting with one another, and they’re able to coordinate pretty complex behaviors.”
Armed with a decade of experience observing wildlife, O’Bryan’s research focus is set to expand next month to include one of the most complex species to date — college students. In January, she will join a collaborative effort with faculty at Rice, psychologist Margaret Beier and electrical engineer Ashutosh Sabharwal, to study real-world social networking in a campus setting.
Throughout the spring semester, O’Bryan and her colleagues will be analyzing teams of Rice engineering students to determine how their interactions predict performance and whether or not productive and counterproductive conditions can be identified within the group. Using novel sensors to record data on conversation patterns and body language, O’Bryan says they will be studying the teams’ interactions as as they work on real-world design challenges and then supplementing these data with standardized decision-making tasks.
Communicating in the Classroom
By observing the students’ vocal exchanges and physical responses, the researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the emergence of leadership and other group roles that individuals take on and how group dynamic correspond with decision-making and collective performance. This knowledge, O’Bryan says, could one day help classroom educators improve social relations among their students.
“Helping students function better in group settings has a direct impact on the education system,” O’Bryan said. “As complex as human communication is, conflicts still arise. The goal of this project is to better understand their communication and detect when a group is performing poorly, then design interventions to improve their interactions and help the overall group performance.”
Ever the multitasker, O’Bryan is concurrently poring over data on the communication habits of baboons as related to her first postdoctoral appointment at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The Rice study, she says, presents a unique opportunity for her to apply her skillset toward the benefit of human society.
“I’m gaining experience in how my research can directly impact human civilization, which is experience I’ve wanted, because I see so many similarities between animal behavior and our own groups,” she said.
It was during her time as an undergraduate at Texas A&M that O’Bryan, who earned a bachelor of science in zoology, discovered her interest in the social behaviors of animals. She had spent a summer, working with Texas Parks and Wildlife at Kickapoo Cavern State Park, where each evening she watched Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from the caves for their nightly activities.
That experience prompted her to reach out to Texas A&M’s resident bat expert, Michael Smotherman, an associate professor of in the Department of Biology and chair of the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience who also is one of the country’s leading authorities on bat behavior. O’Bryan spent her senior year in Smotherman’s lab studying communication in bats, which she considers to be the origin of her passion for animal communication.
“As an undergrad, I was interested in animals and was trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go in,” she said. “Working in Dr. Smotherman’s lab really gave me a great foundation to move on to doing studies of my own.”
Following her graduation from Texas A&M in 2008, O’Bryan, a Sugar Land native, attended the University of Minnesota for her graduate studies, where she earned a Ph.D. in ecology, evolution and behavior in 2015.
Full Circle Encounters
Although the demands of fieldwork, research and academics has kept O’Bryan away from Aggieland for a number of years, she was finally able to visit her alma mater in November as a direct result of her own social interaction and networking. At the Animal Behavior Society Conference this past summer in Milwaukee, O’Bryan bumped into one of her favorite undergraduate professors, Texas A&M biologist Gil Rosenthal, who invited her to campus to guest lecture in one of his behavioral ecology classes — the same class O’Bryan once took herself as an undergrad.
While the education she received at Texas A&M initiated her flourishing career, O’Bryan says it is the support system that came with being an Aggie that she credits for firmly establishing her current path as a successful researcher and lifelong learner.
“Going to college here and knowing that there are other people just as passionate about their school — it’s like having a family there to go through this very important time of your life with you,” O’Bryan said. “It’s a great community to be a part of, and I’ve enjoyed coming back to it.”
For more information about another ingenious facet of O’Bryan’s animal behavioral research — building her own field instruments — please see this recent Nature article.
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