My research aims to uncover the associations between single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and prosocial behaviors — such as grooming and approach — in a population of free-ranging rhesus macaques in Cayo Santiago, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. I specifically examine oxytocin (OXTR) and arginine vasopressin (AVPR) receptor genes, which encode neuropeptides expressed in both the central and peripheral nervous systems that mediate sociality, attachment, and maternal behaviors among mammals. Using whole genome sequencing data, I compile 25 OXTR and AVPR genetic variants for 218 monkeys to determine which animals’ alleles deviate from the reference assembly. I also consolidate the behavioral data, generated through 10-minute focal observations, by culling the behaviors that will serve as outcomes in the statistical model. After grouping the data by several demographic predictors — such as year, age, and observer — I run a hierarchical model developed by a graduate student in the lab to evaluate the effect sizes between the variants and grooming behaviors. The project differentiates itself from similar studies in that I incorporated extensive genomic and behavioral data gleaned from free-ranging monkeys. Several preliminary models reveal no effect between the SNPs and social behaviors, a finding consistent with the underlying notion that changes in expression across many genes, rather than just a single locus, can exert noticeable effects on phenotypes.
This research experience far transcended a single project, however. Throughout the summer, I helped my research mentor label tubes, swabs, and brain bags so that he and other researchers can collect various kinds of tissues on Cayo Santiago in the fall. I also organized and inventoried a freezer containing brain, blood, and DNA samples, recording unique IDs in a spreadsheet that streamlines the process of locating individual samples. The culmination of these different tasks helped me gain an appreciation for all the organization and preparation work required to carry out a long-term project.
My experience even extended beyond my own mentors’ projects to encompass everyone else’s research. Weekly journal clubs and lab meetings run by different postdoctoral researchers and graduate students exposed me to the wide array of projects conducted in the lab, from the trolley problem configured for monkeys to an eye tracking experiment of retweeting behavior. Many of the researchers shared their own experiences in college and graduate school, offering valuable personal insight into the challenges and rewards of a career in academia. The opportunity to interact with these lab members expanded my preconceived notion of the applications of neuroscience to include fields as diverse as marketing, primatology, and game theory.
This summer, I gained a deeper understanding of not only computer programs and statistical models but also the applications of these tools to many distinct fields. I would like to thank my research mentor, Dr. Mike Montague, as well as the PI, Dr. Michael Platt, and all the other postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates in the Platt lab for such a rewarding and gratifying research experience.