Undergrad blends programs to study primate sociality

April 7, 2014

Megan Best began college intending to become a marine biologist. As she moved through her coursework, she realized the fit wasn’t right. Though she felt a calling to work with animals, she was also drawn to sociocultural anthropology.

During the two-week primatology segment of an evolutionary anthropology course, Best decided that was the field for her. ASU student Megan Best holding a chameleon Download Full Image

To create a solid academic foundation, the undergrad, who will graduate from Arizona State University in May, took on a double major: anthropology and biological sciences with a concentration in animal physiology and behavior.

Soon after redirecting her path, Best received a research award, and was teamed with noted primatologist Joan Silk, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Well-known for researching the evolution of social behavior in primates, Silk was the ideal mentor for the budding primatologist.

Under Silk’s direction, Best was given access to seven years’ worth of data on a group of female baboons’ grooming behavior.

Best was charged with applying mathematical modeling – organizing the data into a matrix showing who interacts with whom and how often – and constructing graphs illustrating social bonds among group members. Her goal was to determine if individual attributes, like age, rank and kinship, consistently affect social dynamics, as well as which other factors might be influential.

Though previous studies have been done in this area, they were short-term, looking at only a few months of data. Best’s perspective is far more wide and in-depth.

Recently, Best defended her honors thesis, “Social Network Dynamics of Female Chacma Baboons,” which is based on one aspect of her work with Silk. She hopes to build out her thesis and publish it in a primatology journal.

Throughout her research, Best has met weekly with Silk, whom she calls an amazing and inspirational mentor. Silk, too, has been impressed with Best’s insight and efforts, as well as her range of previous research. Since arriving at ASU, Best has studied chameleon color change, primate dentition, even education and radicalization in Islamic communities.

“Megan taught me as much as I taught her,” Silk says. “I put together the dataset that she used, but she is the one that made the project happen. She accepted the challenge of learning social network analysis methods with enthusiasm and did a terrific job.”

In July, Best will travel to Kenya with Silk to research female baboon sociology in the field. It will be Best’s first trip abroad and will last a year. After Kenya, Best is considering going on to the Max Planck Institute in Germany so that she can compare lab work and field work to decide where she wants to place her focus. Whatever she decides, she is certain that she wants to continue learning and being around animals.

That is no surprise to her parents, whom she credits with teaching her to be independent while providing encouragement. Dad Rich says, “Megan has always been compassionate and interested in animals, so I’m not surprised to see her following this path.”

Mom Shawne adds that her daughter is not only following her dreams, but has blossomed since coming to ASU. “After touring the different campuses she was considering, she told me she felt at home here and could see herself studying and growing in this place,” she notes.

Best certainly has come into her own, recently winning the Cynthia Lakin Award, which recognizes the recipient's contributions to anthropology at ASU.

She says during the first year of college, it was hard for her to wrap her mind around having responsibility: being away from home, taking on a job, attending classes full-time. Reflecting on why she had these feelings made her accountable. Now, she feels grounded and revitalized.

In her precious free time, Best enjoys Capoeira, riding her bike, being outdoors and also taking a “mental hiatus” at least once a week to recharge.

Her advice to new students is to take every opportunity to learn about themselves, and to be open to exploring new fields.

Also, she stresses, “Keep an open mind and look for opportunities to learn. They are all around, even in something as simple as noticing the way the birds interact as you’re walking to class. There is so much to learn every day.”

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Survey finds Chinese students drawn to ASU's reputation of quality

April 7, 2014

Enrollment of students from China is expanding rapidly at Arizona State University, having increased five-fold in the past 10 years. A booming Chinese economy, a worldwide reputation for ASU academic programs and a global movement toward the internationalization of higher education are fueling the trend.

Xiaojie Li, who will receive her master’s degree in higher education from the ASU Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in May, has surveyed Chinese students about their experience at ASU, and found that the most significant factor behind the growth is the quality, or ranking, of the academic programs. ASU student Xiaojie Li on Hayden Lawn Download Full Image

The United States is believed to provide the best education in the world, she says, and many ASU programs are highly ranked. In addition, more middle-class Chinese families can afford to send their children abroad, a factor that has helped boost Chinese enrollment at ASU to 2,497 in fall 2013, almost double the number from fall 2011.

Chinese students also give high consideration to a safe campus, and a city with potential working opportunities in the future. ASU is a very appealing destination on both counts, she says.

Li set her sights on an American degree years ago, though she initially thought she’d study communications. Growing up in Wuhan, China, in Hubei province, the only child of middle-class parents, she worked hard to get good grades, and began studying English in middle school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in film production management in China and worked as a public relations intern for almost a year.

“I found that field wasn’t for me,” she says. “I felt lost and confused. Then I got a job as a student adviser at Tianjin College, University of Science and Technology, and I realized I loved the job, interacting with students and helping them. I started looking for graduate programs in America, to learn about the American system of higher education.”

Her mother had maintained a friendship with Jiping He, a professor of engineering at ASU, since the two were fellow university students. Li met with He, who recommended that she look into ASU. She was impressed with the reputation of ASU, and was attracted by the climate, so she enrolled in fall of 2012.

She says the transition to American culture was difficult at first, but her professors have been very kind and have helped her adapt. She undertook the student survey for her practicum course after contacting Denis Simon, vice provost of the Office of International Strategic Initiatives.

“He responded right away, and he assigned this project to me the very day I met with him,” she says. “While Dr. Simon’s job is creating collaborations at higher levels, with the Chinese government and universities, he also wants to improve the Chinese student experience at ASU.”

Her survey, conducted among 300 students, found that after academic quality and safety, they were most influenced by employment opportunities in the U.S. after graduation, tuition and scholarship, or TA opportunities. The size of the existing population of Chinese students at ASU did not greatly influence their choice of institution, nor did collaborative programs between universities.

Chinese students are seeking overseas education at a younger age, with ASU undergraduates from China outnumbering graduate students for the first time in fall 2012. Almost three-quarters of Chinese students are majoring in engineering or business.

Other survey findings show that 80 percent either enjoy their experience at ASU very much or they like it, and that almost half of Chinese students wish they had had stronger English skills before enrolling. Many find it a challenge to make friends with Americans, but half find it very rewarding to have made many new friends from China.

Li co-presented her work at the ASU-Sichuan University joint conference with Wei Li, ASU professor of Asian Pacific American Studies and Geography. She is now expanding her work as a research assistant with professors Simon and Li, as they conduct data analysis on a new project and write two pieces, one each in English and Chinese.

“Dr. Li has helped me have these presentation and publication experiences, and she sponsored me to travel to China to make the presentation,” says Li. “I would not have had all these experiences if I hadn’t met her.”

Xiaojie Li says Chinese students do tend to stick together at ASU because of the comfort level and the language, but both American and Chinese students could do a better job reaching out to each other. She has always tried to seek acquaintances from both cultures.

With a growing student body of Chinese at ASU, she would like to see the university host more cross-cultural events, and create more joint programs in which American and Chinese students can connect with each other.

“The highlight of my experience at ASU has been making connections, building relationships with people,” she says. “Sometimes you get lucky, and you meet good people who can help you reach your goals.”