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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2001

Jess E. Purdy, PhD, Psi Chi President, Southwestern University (TX)

This summer I will spend eight weeks at the Bamfield Marine Station, which is located on the open ocean side of Southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Along with three of my students, I plan to study the predator-prey interactions between killer whales and salmon under laboratory conditions and then travel to Northern Vancouver Island where we hope to record killer whales foraging on salmon in the wild. From this research we hope to discover some of the cues used by salmon to detect killer whales, how detection of a predator translates into adaptive antipredatory behavior, whether learning plays a role in this behavior, and how loud noise might influence that adaptive behavior. I am looking forward to the experience as I have had a deep fascination and love for the ocean and marine mammals my whole life. For me, nothing is more thrilling than to be in my 15-foot inflatable boat when a killer whale or a humpback whale surfaces less than 20 feet away. I love working with aquatic animals and seeing them in the wild, but how did all of this happen? After all, I teach at Southwestern University, a small, private liberal arts college in central Texas. The route I took to get here, as you will see, was circuitous. But, by my telling you this story, you may discover something important about the choices you make.

When I was in high school, my biology teacher told me that I should not go into marine biology because it was very difficult to get a job in the field. He advised me to obtain a bachelor's degree in physics and then go on to graduate school in physical oceanography. After a year at the Colorado School of Mines, it was clear to me that I was not going to finish a major in physics, and I transferred to Colorado State University to become a psychology major. (I knew at the time that I wanted to be something that started with a P.) I enjoyed my introductory psychology course and my first course in experimental psychology. When I learned that one could study animal learning and behavior with a psychology degree, I knew I had found my niche.

I began working with rats in my sophomore year in Dr. Henry A. Cross's animal learning laboratory and continued to run rats and work in his lab for seven years. In my first year in graduate school, I developed an allergy to rats, and for four years I wore a mask, gloves, and lab coat and took shots whenever I was in the lab. When I was finishing my PhD at Colorado State University, I began applying for jobs. The job market was tight in 1978, and I applied for every job for which I was even remotely qualified. One opening of interest was at Southwestern University where, the ad claimed, they were looking for a human experimental psychologist. Being human, I applied. Because all of my research had been with animal subjects, I was not surprised when after a few months I received a letter of rejection from Southwestern University. I was surprised when several months after that I received a call from the department chair at Southwestern asking me if I were still interested in the position. I was, and I went for an interview in June 1978.

During the interview, the dean asked me if I would be able to develop a research program using humans as participants, given that all of my previous work had been with rats. I told him of my allergy to rats, and I assured him that I could work with humans. True to my word, I worked with human participants for two years, conducting studies on sensory memory and other areas in cognitive psychology. I enjoyed the job, but after two years my interests in animal learning and animal behavior began to take hold of me. My choices were to hit the job market again or develop an animal program at Southwestern. I chose the latter option. Rats were out. Both the dean and the vice president for fiscal affairs had indicated that the psychology lab was too small and the ventilation too inadequate to house rats.

The solution occurred to me while reading the work of Dr. M. E. Bitterman, a world-renowned comparative psychologist at the University of Hawaii. Dr. Bitterman had pioneered the use of fish in an operant lab and had published a significant number of important papers on the cognitive capability of fish and their standing in the evolution of intelligence. I could develop an animal program using aquatic animals. To develop such a lab, I would need money and experience. After three tries, I wrote a successful grant to the National Science Foundation to fund the equipment. I also received a small fellowship from the Sam Taylor Fellowship program that is funded by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education. The fellowship provided funding for me to spend seven weeks in Dr. Bitterman's lab at the University of Hawaii. It was tough duty.

In the 20 years since these humble beginnings, the Aquatic Animal Research Lab has grown considerably. The laboratory is housed in the F. W. Olin Building, constructed in 1996, and measures 1,800 square feet. There are three rooms for freshwater subjects. One room houses four operant conditioning stations for goldfish and koi. A second room is for basic conditioning experiments with goldfish and bass, and a third room provides housing for all freshwater animals. A fourth room houses the saltwater facility. Cuttlefish (large-brained cephalopods related to squid and octopuses) are used as subjects to address questions related to the evolution of intelligence and their problem-solving ability. Over the years, I have spent summers at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, the National Resource Center for Cephalopods, the Bamfield Marine Station, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The aquatic animal program at Southwestern University is a strong program with state-of-the-art equipment, but what about my interests in marine mammals? Again, I have had some great experiences. I have taught courses for which students and I traveled to Stellwagen Bank to see whales off the coast of Massachusetts. I also have taught students courses for which we traveled to Shannon Point Marine Station in Anacortes, Washington, and courses in which we conducted field research on killer whales while camped out on uninhabited islands in the Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. In short, about every two years I have been able to arrange experiences that allowed me to see and conduct field research with marine mammals.

If you have stayed with me this long, you may be wondering what is the point of all of this. Students come to me all the time worried about choices they have to make. Students worry about which graduate school they should apply to, which program they should accept, which job offer would be best to take, etc. Making these types of decisions is often accompanied by high stress. The fear is that by making one decision they might be limiting their options for a career or that they may be locked into a dead-end job with no hope of escape. My experience suggests solutions to these questions. The solution is to realize that you can use your skills and experiences and interests to mold a career that is both challenging and fun. To launch a successful career that will sustain your interest over a long period of time, you should obtain the best degrees you can and acquire as many experiences as possible. With strong degrees, a wide variety of experiences, a good dose of confidence, and a willingness to embrace change, you will find that you can shape your career to match your interests. As the years fly by, you will be able to change what you are doing to reflect your current interests and passions. As evidence of this ability I present my story. After all, how many of you would have guessed that an advertisement for a human experimental psychologistat a small private university, with no history of an animal program, in landlocked central Texaswould lead to a good place to launch a career for a comparative psychologist with abiding interests in the behavior and learning ability of marine mammals and other aquatic animals?


Copyright 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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