Caroline Shearer loves asking animals questions: Why did your species adopt its social hierarchy? Do these social structures affect your health? What role does your environment play in this?
Of course, animals can’t answer her questions directly. That’s where research comes in.
As an evolutionary anthropology/ecology Ph.D. student in Professor Christine Drea’s lab, Shearer studies the costs and benefits of different social structures, such as female dominance in brown lemurs. As a side project, she also studies how hormones impact meerkat behavior. Her passion for studying social behavior shines through the variety of her past research on animals like Grant’s gazelle, dung beetles, and kiwi birds.
Since her current project on brown lemurs requires fieldwork in Madagascar, much of her time on campus revolves around teaching others to do the kind of work she does.
“My passion is spending time asking questions of animals,” Shearer said. “Since animals can’t directly tell us what they are thinking, teaching how to study their behavior is that much more of an exciting challenge. I also really, really love seeing people become their own confident researchers.”
Shearer, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and James B. Duke Fellow, is a teaching assistant for the Primate Field Biology course this semester. Through the course, students spend a semester observing lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, recording their behavior and developing a research project of their own. This course has given Shearer the opportunity to share her passion with others, and she finds it exciting to see undergraduates make new connections with the environment around them.
“Doing research with students in Field Biology, you get to see undergraduates become competent and enthusiastic researchers, even if they’re not fully independent,” Shearer said. “At this time, you get to see people develop their own questions and feel confident in finding a solution to how to observe or interrogate potential answers to their questions, which is just a fulfilling experience.”
Shearer’s passion for teaching doesn’t end with undergraduates. In her free time, she also works at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. There, she volunteers at The Lab, a program aimed at getting kids between 3 and 12 engaged with STEM. The Lab gives kids hands-on experience with science, working on projects such as extracting strawberry DNA.
“It’s good for a career scientist to see how people engage with science and have that kind of spark reignited,” Shearer said. “But also, on the other end, it’s really good to be able to give children an access point to a career that they may or may not already have access to.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the museum closed to visitors and kids no longer had the same access to science education. So that kids could continue to engage with science at home, Shearer helped out with Lab@Home, the museum’s new online program. Through the program, she helped lead kids through experiments like creating paint out of pulp and investigating animal footprints.
“I’d say the most memorable moment was working with these kids online to make accessible science that they really engage with, while also still creating and explaining topics that I’m really passionate about.” Shearer said.
Though Shearer finds working with kids and undergraduates entirely different experiences, both age groups help her engage with the other better.
Working with young kids has helped her teach undergraduates while fostering their excitement and helped her be more creative in responding with an open mind and a welcoming attitude. At the same time, working with undergraduates has helped her recognize the importance of treating kids as fellow scientific collaborators and encouraging them to pursue scientific careers.
“They’re both great,” Shearer said. “I think I won’t ever stop engaging with either.”
Photos by Mika Travis