Professor and students ‘monkeying around’

Junette Reyes/Staff Writer

Psychology professor Eliza Nelson and her “monkey team” comprised of biology and psychology undergraduates are conducting research on brain organization in humans by studying monkeys.

The research is unique to FIU because of the involvement of non-human primates but also because of the model species being studied — spider monkeys. The team is concerned with how motor development is influenced, primarily focusing its work on children and non-human primates.

“Primates are our closest relatives, so understanding the patterns in any aspect of their behaviors and features is a good way to learn about ourselves,” said Alexandra Figueroa, senior biology major and team member.

Nelson said the multidisciplinary involvement of her students has been beneficial to the project because they each bring something unique to the lab as part of their undergraduate training.

“I was interested in communication of animals, but this goes a lot with it,” said Stephanie Albright, psychology student and team member. “I got really lucky to be able to join this lab because before this, nothing like this existed in the psychology department.”

Nelson said the teams gives the same experimental tasks they give the children to the spider monkeys in order to see if they show a preference to one side of the body with their tail.

“I was fascinated with the concept of brain lateralization, not only in humans, but in nonhuman primates, and the uniqueness of the spider monkeys as the subject,” said Maria Fernanda Gonzalez, senior biology major and team member. “Spider monkeys have a prehensile tail that they use as an extra limb.”

“We have this interest in the motor system because we want to know more about how the brain develops and how it’s organized,” Nelson said. “We choose to do it in monkeys in addition to the work we do in kids because we want to understand how that brain has changed across evolutionary time, how it has changed across the primate order.”

One spider monkey in particular, 2-month-old Penelope, is being observed through her development. Penelope is watched and studied as she grows up in a habitat of nearly 400 primates, at the Monkey Jungle, where the team works, located in South Miami-Dade.

“It is very important to have this connection to FIU to get those students and to give them that experience but also to just take advantage of the collection that they have at Monkey Jungle, to do this kind of behavioral research that hasn’t been done before that we hope contributes to this growing body of knowledge,” said Nelson.

The students expressed a similar sentiment in terms of what they’ve learned in the lab.

“As a biology major, this project has given me the chance of becoming familiar with the different research methods that will be useful when I conduct my own research project in the future,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez joined the team by assisting Nelson through the identification of the spider monkeys at Monkey Jungle.

Figueroa, however, said she learned about it through a friend and joined for the research experience.

“I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to conduct research with primates, collect data properly, and interpret results in a way that makes a meaningful contribution to the scientific community,” Figueroa said.

Albright found out about the lab by chance while searching online. She said she had been interested in animal behavior for a long time but never really knew where to look.

Nelson said the lab is open to students who are interested and are willing to dedicate their time for the extensive amount of training and work.

“It’s a huge investment of time for the students to be in the lab and for me to train them to be in the lab. I think the reward of it is immense because being out in the enclosure with the animals is tremendous,” said Nelson. “It is completely different than anything else there is.”