Jenn Smith

Jenn Smith's University Enrichment Fellowship allowed her to study the behavioral ecology of mammals, with Kay E. Holekamp, PhD, at MSU. Her research took her to the famous "hyena project" camp that MSU runs in Kenya. Prior to coming to MSU, Jenn received a BA in biology from Colby College (Maine) in 1998, and an MS in integrative biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003. Jenn received joint PhDs from MSU in zoology and ecology, evolutionary biology & behavior (EEEB) in 2010.

As a student, Jenn’s research was well known on MSU’s campus as part of the “hyena project.” She worked on a project that has been a part of MSU’s body of research since the late 1980s. After graduation she moved on to the campus of UCLA (when we interviewed her), and later on to Mills College in Oakland, California. Her research ties to MSU hold true. She was kind enough to grant us an interview and to share some photographs from her research in Africa. It true modern era fashion, we did the interview through email to accommodate Jenn’s research and work schedule in California, where she now lives.

University Scholarships & Fellowships (USF): What did you research at Michigan State, and why did you choose to come here for your doctoral degree?

Jenn Smith (JS): My dissertation research focused on the social behavior of spotted hyenas. These animals are incredibly bizarre, breaking many of the typical “rules” that biologists often use to characterize mammals. Most notably these animals live in female-dominated societies. Because of their intriguing social lives and because of Kay Holekamp’s top-notch reputation for her outstanding research on these fascinating animals, pursuing doctoral research at MSU was my first choice. Along with tremendous opportunities for learning and pursuing original research also came spectacular opportunities to live and conduct field research abroad in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. My fellowship support made it possible to pursue extended field research in Africa. It was through my extended field work that I came to realize that although spotted hyenas do compete with each other for access to resources, these animals are also incredibly cooperative and the complexity of their social worlds is remarkably similar to those of many non-human primates.

USF: What led you down this path of study?

JS: I have been interested in animal behavior for as long as I can remember. I grew-up in the small town of Cushing, Maine, and spent many hours outside each day surrounded by the woods and ocean. As a sophomore at Colby College in Maine, I had the opportunity to study in the British West Indies during our January program. While there, I studied the behavioral ecology of land hermit crabs. From that point on, I knew that my true passion was for studying animals in their natural environments in which they persist, and immediately enrolled to spend my entire junior year abroad: a semester at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, and a semester at the School for Field Studies in the Masai Mara, Kenya. It was at that point in my life that I became truly fascinated by the social behavior of spotted hyenas and wanted to fully understand the importance of cooperation in daily lives of these animals.

USF: How do you envision your research being built upon in the future, by yourself or by others?

JS: My research at MSU was part of a long-term study on spotted hyenas, initiated by Kay Holekamp and Laura Smale back in 1988. Data collection on this same social group of spotted hyenas continues today and the Holekamp lab continues to monitor additional new social groups as well. Thus, much of the new and answered questions from my dissertation research will be addressed in the years to come. Kay Holekamp and I continue to collaborate on research using new social network methods, much like those used in social media sites like Facebook. We are using these statistics to characterize social network dynamics in these animals. Moreover, I continue to collaborate with a senior graduate student in the lab, Leslie Curren, to understand whether adult males also form cooperative alliances. My dissertation research extended earlier research by folks at MSU demonstrating that spotted hyenas make complex decisions with respect to cooperation based on social knowledge; others in the lab continue to test hypotheses about the social knowledge that hyenas possess about their social worlds using field experiments. Most recently, Kay Holekamp and others at MSU established the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action as an NSF Science and Technology Center ( Collaborations through the BEACON Center will build upon data from dissertation research on collective action and social complexity by: 1) developing and applying evolutionary principles of adaptation and resiliency in computer science and engineering design, and (2) using computational systems in tandem with biological experiments to test complex biological hypotheses.

USF: How did your fellowship impact your education?

JS: As a first-generation Ph.D., my fellowship facilitated my success at MSU and propelled my career forward as I pursue my postdoctoral research at UCLA and start applying for faculty positions. The prestige of the fellowship, as well as the extra amount of time the award allowed for me to devote directly to my research, certainly facilitated my small successes during my graduate career, ranging from my ability to publish my dissertation results early-on as a graduate student, to acquiring extramural funding to pursue interesting questions. For this support and for the many opportunities it provided to me, I am most grateful to the Graduate School at MSU. Selecting MSU as a place for graduate training was one of the best decisions I ever made in my professional career. I am most grateful for the financial support I received, but more importantly for the excellent mentoring I received from my major advisor and the rest of dissertation committee, the Department of Zoology, the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program, and from the Graduate School along the way.

USF: What are you currently working on?

JS: I am currently an American Association of University Women Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and in the Center for Society and Genetics at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the lab of Dan Blumstein. Whereas my doctoral research on spotted hyenas aimed to understand the evolutionary forces favoring social behavior, my postdoctoral research takes a more mechanistic approach to understand the physiological factors that trigger decision-making in a social ground squirrel, the yellow-bellied marmot. Most recently, I skied into my field site in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and spent four months studying the behavioral ecology of marmots at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. I am now spending many hours in the laboratory validating hormonal assays and performing experiments to understand the hormonal basis of social tolerance and reproduction in these animals. It is extremely exciting to have worked on such different biological systems and to develop a broad toolkit for understanding animal behavior. I remain deeply committed to diversity and undergraduate education. In addition to mentoring undergraduates pursuing honors projects at UCLA, I just won a university-wide Award for Innovative Courses in Diversity for the course I teach on “Evolutionary Biology and Social Cooperation” at UCLA.

USF: What are your future career plans?

JS: My immediate goal is to become a university professor. In the Spartan tradition, I aspired to promote excellence in education through research, scholarship, mentoring and outreach. This continues to be a time of transition and there a number of exciting possibilities for research in the future.