As a student, Jenn’s research was well known on MSU’s campus as part of the “hyena project.” She worked on a project that has been a part of MSU’s body of research since the late 1980s. Since graduation she has moved on to the campus of UCLA, but her research ties to MSU hold true. She was kind enough to grant us an interview and to share some photographs from her research in Africa. It true modern era fashion, we did the interview through email to accommodate Jenn’s research and work schedule in California, where she now lives.
Fellowship: University Enrichment Fellowship
Department: Zoology at MSU, Now in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Area of focus: Behavioral ecology of mammals
Major professor: Kay E. Holekamp, PhD
Education: Joint PhDs – Zoology and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology & Behavior(EEEB), Michigan State University, 2010; MS, Integrative Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003; BA, Biology, Colby College (Maine), 1998
Excerpts from the interview with Jenn Smith:
University Scholarships & Fellowships (USF): What did you research at Michigan State, and why did you choose to come here for your doctoral degree?
Jenn Smith (JS): My dissertation research focused on the social behavior of spotted hyenas. These animals are incredibly bizarre, breaking many of the typical “rules” that biologists often use to characterize mammals. Most notably these animals live in female-dominated societies. Because of their intriguing social lives and because of Kay Holekamp’s top-notch reputation for her outstanding research on these fascinating animals, pursuing doctoral research at MSU was my first choice. Along with tremendous opportunities for learning and pursuing original research also came spectacular opportunities to live and conduct field research abroad in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. My fellowship support made it possible to pursue extended field research in Africa. It was through my extended field work that I came to realize that although spotted hyenas do compete with each other for access to resources, these animals are also incredibly cooperative and the complexity of their social worlds is remarkably similar to those of many non-human primates.
USF: How did your fellowship impact your education?
JS: As a first-generation Ph.D., my fellowship facilitated my success at MSU and propelled my career forward as I pursue my postdoctoral research at UCLA and start applying for faculty positions. The prestige of the fellowship, as well as the extra amount of time the award allowed for me to devote directly to my research, certainly facilitated my small successes during my graduate career, ranging from my ability to publish my dissertation results early-on as a graduate student, to acquiring extramural funding to pursue interesting questions. For this support and for the many opportunities it provided to me, I am most grateful to the Graduate School at MSU. Selecting MSU as a place for graduate training was one of the best decisions I ever made in my professional career. I am most grateful for the financial support I received, but more importantly for the excellent mentoring I received from my major advisor and the rest of dissertation committee, the Department of Zoology, the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior (EEBB) Program, and from the Graduate School at MSU along the way.
USF: What are you currently working on?
JS: I am currently an American Association of University Women Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and in the Center for Society and Genetics at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the lab of Dan Blumstein. Whereas my doctoral research on spotted hyenas aimed to understand the evolutionary forces favoring social behavior, my postdoctoral research takes a more mechanistic approach to understand the physiological factors that trigger decision-making in a social ground squirrel, the yellow-bellied marmot. Most recently, I skied into my field site in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and spent four months studying the behavioral ecology of marmots at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. I am now spending many hours in the laboratory validating hormonal assays and performing experiments to understand the hormonal basis of social tolerance and reproduction in these animals. It is extremely exciting to have worked on such different biological systems and to develop a broad toolkit for understanding animal behavior. I remain deeply committed to diversity and undergraduate education. In addition to mentoring undergraduates pursuing honors projects at UCLA, I just won a university-wide Award for Innovative Courses in Diversity for the course I teach on “Evolutionary Biology and Social Cooperation” at UCLA.
To read the full interview with Jenn, please visit the Graduate School Fellows website.