Biology graduate student's research on genetics of chimpanzees in captivity called 'ahead-of-the-curve thinking'
A research collaboration focusing on animals in captivity forged between a faculty member and an undergraduate student has continued with innovative research as the student pursues a graduate degree.
The animals under study by Francesca Golus are different at the graduate level, but what remains are the same attention to detail and zeal for discovery that she shared with biology professor Jodee Hunt remains.
Golus made her mark as an undergraduate student in the Student Summer Scholar program studying carnivores such as lions and bears at the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids. She observed the animals' enrichment protocols, which are stimulating activities meant to suppress negative animal behaviors.
Now Golus has moved her research focus to chimpanzees, and is studying the genetics of the captive population, a study area that is ripe for discovery. She is working with three zoos: John Ball, Detroit Zoo and Lincoln Park in Chicago.
"The biggest goal is to determine what types of diversity are in these populations, because the genetic testing hasn't really been done before," Golus said. "What are the building blocks of these populations?"
The research is at the molecular level and is the start of putting pieces of the captive chimpanzee genetic puzzle together. She said she is looking at blood and tissue samples obtained during routine veterinarian exams.
This beginning process is necessary to build the foundation of the research, the application of which is too early to specify. Golus foresees this information being helpful to those managing captive populations, from breeding decisions to behavior analysis, since the majority of chimpanzees in captivity were bred in captivity.
From a big-picture standpoint, Golus is gratified to be working in an overall effort to protect all chimpanzees. She was inspired by words she heard at a symposium from renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who talked of how human-related factors have adversely affected wild chimpanzee populations.
Hunt said she admires Golus for her "dogged dedication to zoos and animals kept in zoos."
"She recognizes that these chimpanzees have true value, not only for their educational value but also that they can help us understand the species, and they can help us conserve the species," Hunt said. "Focusing on captive populations and treating them as scientists with the same research questions as they would for the wild population is ahead-of-the-curve thinking."
It is fairly well established that in the wild there are two sub species of chimpanzees with distinct genetic characteristics to those populations, Hunt said. While careful breeding records are kept for chimps in captivity in the U.S., the origins of these captive populations are not as clear.
That's where understanding the genome is helpful for a more holistic view, including any genetic distinctions for populations long in captivity versus those in the wild, Hunt said.
Striving for new knowledge and new discoveries is core to a researcher and something Golus grasped early on, Hunt said. Golus stands out because of her ability to identify gaps in research and then dive in to fill out that information.
"She and I both love to learn and we love to explore; we're quite interdisciplinary," Hunt said. "We like to look at things holistically. My strengths and her strengths complement really well."
Golus said Hunt has provided immeasurable support for her burgeoning research career. When Golus decided to continue graduate studies at Grand Valley, she immediately sought out Hunt to be her advisor. And for the future, Golus is eyeing an independent study with Hunt doing behavioral research on big cats.
"She has a gift of letting you lead while she supports," Golus said. "If you want to shoot for the stars, she'll give you the ladder to get there."