For Nelle Kulick, pursuing her passion for research can mean wearing snake guards and wading through mud. This summer, Nelle, a senior majoring in environmental biology and anthropology, traveled to Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica to work with Katherine Jack, Professor of Anthropology, on a study of capuchin monkeys. She worked alongside other researchers to study alternative male morphologies in white-faced capuchin monkeys, and her fieldwork was supported by the Jean Danielson Scholarship Fund.
Unlike most species, in which larger animals are more likely to become alphas, capuchin monkeys develop broader shoulders and wider brows after they become alphas because of this higher status. Using parallel laser photometry techniques, Nelle and the rest of the research team tried to quantify the morphological shifts that differentiate alphas and subordinates. They also collected urine samples to understand how the monkeys use pheromones to communicate their status.
This was not easy work. Nelle describes “waking up at 4 am, being out with the monkeys before the sun even rose,” and spending “days following them through the forest and trying to catch up with them.” Taking photos with the lasers was difficult because the monkeys were often too far away or obscured by foliage. Through their persistent fieldwork, the team was able to take quality photos and Nelle is now using Photoshop to measure the features of the monkeys that the team photographed.
Despite the challenges, Nelle found the research incredibly rewarding. The team even made a surprising observation when they saw a boa constrictor attack one of the monkeys they were studying. Nelle says, “the other monkeys immediately stormed the boa and started biting at it.” The group’s speedy attack freed the monkey from the boa constrictor, and it was able to escape. This was especially exciting because the monkeys demonstrated “the ultimate altruistic behavior and that’s never been reported in the species.” The lab captured the attack on video and is submitting this finding to an academic journal.
Nelle has been working with Professor Jack since her sophomore year and has been instrumental in this project, helping her write grant applications to conduct the research. The pilot data collected this summer will hopefully serve as the basis for a five-year research project for Professor Jack’s lab. Nelle says that she intends to continue working with Professor Jack after she graduates because she hopes to return to Costa Rica, and she “may even end up pursuing a doctoral program in primatology on capuchin monkeys in a similar system.” With a Goldwater Scholarship and an Honors Thesis on the effects of global change on plant microbe interactions, Nelle is well-poised to take on the next research project critical to the field of environmental biology.
The Jean Danielson Scholarship Fund that supported Nelle in this field work program was named in honor of Professor Jean Danielson, who was an associate professor of political science and also directed the Honors Program for 14 years, spending countless hours counseling students and working on their behalf. Professor Danielson challenged students to think and work in ways they had never considered and to live a life of purpose and intellectual vigor.
In 2019, in addition to Nelle, four other students were awarded the Jean Danielson Scholarship for summer field work: Bailey Casteel, Humzah Khan, Jimmy Rogers, and Deepika Rajkumar. Through their work, these students honor Professor Danielson’s legacy by exemplifying the values and essence of this award, and the Honors Program is proud to have supported them in their endeavors.