Nest-building gives wing to research on bird behaviour and cognition

Lauren Guillette, one of UAlberta's newest professors, is studying the process of learning; and teaching about it, too.

News Staff - 10 September 2018

New assistant professor Lauren Guillette is fascinated by animal behaviour; specifically, the process by which they learn, using nest-building in birds as a comparative study across species. After five years doing research in Scotland, Guillette has returned to UAlberta, where she completed her PhD in psychology, to continue her research and teach students about learning.

What brought you to the University of Alberta?

I was an international graduate student and obtained my PhD at the University of Alberta; I am thrilled to be back leading my own research group here. There are many people I look forward to working with at UAlberta, whether it be through formal collaboration, discussions at seminars, team meetings, or reading groups. It's a particularly exciting time as we have seven new faculty members, including myself, joining the Department of Psychology. I have been working at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for the past five years and will strive to build bridges between complementary research conducted at UAlberta and in the United Kingdom and Europe.

What questions to you aim to answer? What inspired you to enter this field?

Animal behaviour fascinates me. Animals need to solve many of the same problems that we do: providing food for themselves and their offspring, finding or making shelter, avoiding dangerous situations, living in social groups, and so on. Accordingly, my research focuses on how animals learn about biologically important events in their lives.

My work addresses two main questions. The first question: what causes individual differences in learning among animals from the same population, and what are the consequences of these differences in learning? My empirical work on this question has used mainly wild-caught black-capped chickadees, but also pigeons. I recently published a meta-analysis, along with Liam Dougherty at the University of Liverpool, which found that learning is related to personality, but the direction of the relationship is not consistently predictable across animals.

My second question: what is the role of social learning in nest-building behaviour in birds? I have mainly addressed this question by studying zebra finches in the laboratory, but have recently started a collaboration with Andy Young at the University of Exeter and Sue Healy at the University of St. Andrews studying collaborative nest building in the white-browed sparrow weaver in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa. Nest-building is a ubiquitous, yet diverse behaviour with variation in, for example, who builds (male, female, both, family group), what material is used, the final structure, and is a useful comparative model system for addressing questions about learning, social learning, and physical cognition.

Why is this an important field of study? How can this work address some of our pressing societal challenges?

The work I do is fundamental science that increases our knowledge about the brain, behaviour, learning and other cognitive abilities. This means that potential applications are limitless! Because I work on a charismatic system-nest-building-I have been able to engage directly with the public via hands-on science festival activities and interactive lectures and discussions. In this way, I can share my teams work and disseminate knowledge to a broad audience, and spark a love of science, nature, and curiosity about the brain in the next generation.

What courses will you teach, or are you teaching?

I teach PSYCO 381 Principles of Learning, which examines a variety of fundamental learning processes, primarily as investigated through research involving non‐human subjects. I will teach a seminar course in the coming years on comparative cognition and potentially animal construction behavior, and I am currently developing a lecture on unconscious gender bias in the field of science and academia.

Why is teaching important to you?

I enjoy being part of a productive, supportive, and intellectually engaging team, which is one of the reasons that I enjoy teaching. Teaching is important to me because I get to interact with undergraduates and graduate teaching assistants where I can foster an environment where students gain and improve on skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, and leadership-skills that are applicable no matter what students do in the future.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Science is global: it affects everyone and therefore must include everyone. I'm very much looking forward to working with my new team of graduate students who are joining UAlberta this fall from Edmonton, Costa Rica, and the United States.