Monday, June 1, 2015

URSP Student Amber Winsor is World Learning with Domestic Goats (Capra Hicus)

My first experience with psychological research was as a research assistant on a large team of people through the Human Emotions Research Lab at GMU. That work allowed me to see a lot of what I had been learning in classes being used in real life and further fueled my interest in psychological research. When I began looking for new research to pursue about a year later, I stumbled across an article on the GMU Psychology home page about some animal communication research that my then professor and now mentor, Doris Bitler Davis, had been conducting. I reached out to her to see if she needed a research assistant, and luckily for me she had a project in mind. The goal of our research is to determine whether goats have the ability to fast-map, a language acquisition process found in both humans and dogs. It will tell us a lot about the extent of fast-mapping in the animal kingdom as well as the cognitive capacity of goats. Each week, I spend 2 or 3 days training three adorable miniature fainting goats the names of 3 different toys. I’ve had to alter training styles and reward methods countless times because no studies of the kind have been conducted with goats before, so there is no formula to follow. What seems to work the best is to call out the name of a toy, wait for the goat to make a choice by tapping one toy with their nose, and then rewarding them with raisins for correct toy choices. Working with animals has tested my patience with the unpredictability of research and the need to be flexible when necessary- whether it be that the goats are sick, unmotivated, or the weather prevents me from making it out to the farm where they are housed. This upcoming we will be conducting experimental trials rather than just training trials. In these, we will introduce a new toy to the group of familiar toys, call out the name of the new toy without training the goat its name, and then record their choice. If they choose the correct new toy, it may be evidence that they were able to form a rough idea of what the new word means, also known as fast-mapping. In the future I want to attend graduate school for psychology and continue doing research in the field. This particular study has been especially valuable since I have had so much freedom in the design and facilitation of the study. I’ve had the opportunity to experience many of the pains that come along with research projects as well as the rewarding feeling of success after many failed attempts. I know that this research is setting me up to be successful in research in the future.