The MRes in Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation @ Roehampton – why I chose it, what I studied, and where it has taken me

By Raphaela Heesen

Raphaela doing fieldwork (c) Bernard Tauran

There are lots of different masters’ courses in the field of evolutionary anthropology; in this piece I wanted to explain how I came to join the MRes Primate Biology, Behavior and Conservation at Roehampton, and what I feel the course has given me.

Having received a Bachelor of Science from the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Bonn, Germany, I was intrigued by topics in evolution and behaviour. I have always been interested in hominin evolution, particularly in the evolution of social cognition and behaviour, but could not quite follow this interest when I studied in Germany. I then spent my Erasmus Internship at the University of Vienna, studying hominin evolution, but realized that studying and dating fossils would not allow me to understand the evolution of human social intelligence. Since behaviour does not fossilize, I went out to South Africa to study the social behaviour of a wild group of Samango monkeys for my Bachelor’s project, looking for signs of phylogenetically shared behavioural characteristics of non-human primates and humans. After this experience, I was convinced that I was doing what interested me most, and aimed at finding the right programme to continue my career in the field of primatology.

I went to the web, searching for opportunities and Masters’ programmes in the field of primatology, with a strongly research-oriented focus. Being convinced that I wanted to continue my career with a PhD after the Master’s, I was specifically looking for a programme that prepares students for a successful academic career. I needed to find a programme that allowed me to build strong inter-personal and communication skills, abilities for statistics and data management, and theoretical expertise in key topics of primatology. Ideally, of course, I wanted a one-year combination of taught courses and an independent research project – where I could then apply the acquired skills. I very quickly found what I searched for: the Master of Research (MRes) in Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation at the University of Roehampton, led by Professor Stuart Semple. I contacted Stuart, and was kindly given the immediate opportunity to discuss my suitability for this programme via skype, which encouraged me further to apply.

After having applied for the MRes and been awarded a place, I moved to London and started the programme. The offer of taught material within this programme was a perfect mixture of field-related courses, such as engaging in behavioural data collection at Trentham Monkey Forest, as well as laboratory-related (e.g., hormone analyses) and statistical courses – a fully rounded preparation for all the necessary skills to start a PhD after the completion of the Masters. Not only were the courses very interesting and helpful, but the teaching was excellent as well. Moving into the second half of the programme, I started to think and design my own research project for the Master’s thesis. My supervisor, Professor Stuart Semple, was available throughout this process, guiding and helping me anytime I needed input. With critical questions and scientific discussions, I was able to come up with my own research project on coding efficiency in chimpanzee gestural communication. When doing their thesis, students could decide whether they preferred to conduct field research abroad in various research sites around the world, or whether they preferred to remain at site and analyse existing datasets in collaboration with other researchers. I opted for the latter, establishing my first collaboration with another scientist, Dr Cat Hobaiter, University of St Andrews, and analysing a comprehensive set of videos on chimpanzee gesture videos that she kindly made available to me. This project was an excellent choice leading, finally, to a publication in a prestigious scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Linguistic laws in chimpanzee gestural communication. Apart from the academic experience I had, I also engaged in a vivid and enjoyable student life at the beautiful Whitelands Campus!

In the field (c) Bernard Tauran

Summing up my experiences during the MRes, I gathered a great set of skills for my future academic career. First, I gained skills to communicate my findings effectively – a crucial aspect of scientific dialogue and a must-have as a professional researcher. Second, I also acquired skills in data management and analysis, preparing me for independent processing of my own research datasets. Third, I obtained skills in writing academically, allowing me to communicate my findings to publish in scientific journals!

The successful completion of my research in the MRes allowed me to secure an excellent PhD position quickly; I am now studying the coordination of joint action in bonobos and chimpanzees, at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. Now nearing the end of my PhD,  I have just accepted a postdoctoral position at Durham University on a project measuring emotion expressions in humans and bonobos!

The MRes was an ideal preparation for further study – and I can only strongly recommend the experience to anyone who wishes to pursue a successful academic career in the field of primatology.

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