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UC Berkeley’s Madeline Girard on Becoming a Scientist and Researching Animal Behavior

February 4, 2012

Madeline Girard - UC Berkeley Elias Lab

We walk by incredible detail and complexity in the animal world every day –  above us, around us, beneath our feet, and even in the world of insects. For Madeline Girard, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Elias Lab, the exploration of animal behavior has become a passion. She’s also brought the national Expanding Your Horizons outreach program to UC Berkeley to share that passion with middle school girls interested in math and science (the next UC Berkeley Expanding Your Horizons event will be held on Sat Mar. 3). Ms. Girard invited into UC Berkeley’s Elias Lab for a tour and overview of her research into spider mating rituals. What is a scientist?

Madeline Girard: “A scientist is anyone who is actively working to solve problems of some kind through a systematic approach. You start with a question, and you try to figure out how to best test that question by forming hypotheses… it often takes tons of trial and error. Although it typically doesn’t work out the way you want it to, sometimes you find things you weren’t looking for that are equally interesting if not more interesting than the original avenue of questioning you were pursuing.

“The hardest part of being a scientist is not coming up with the questions, because there are tons of questions, it’s figuring out a way you can test the question, and testing the question in a way you can draw conclusions. It can be difficult to tailor your tests to actually get at what you are trying to answer, and being able to say with confidence that you have ruled out other possible hypotheses.

“For students interested in doing scientific work but who aren’t sure how to get started, I’d say take advantage of any opportunities to volunteer. Networking is super important. Once you are in the field you know what opportunities are out there, whereas someone who is just starting out won’t know about such. Talk to people in the field that interests you, show your enthusiasm and offer to help with the research. If you decide to go to college, find a lab doing research you are interested in, and spend time volunteering or working in that lab. In the meantime, take advantage of programs like Expanding Your Horizons that can expose you to a bunch of different careers.” What sparked your interest in animal behavioral research?

Girard: “I’ve always been interested in animals, but originally thought that the only way I could work with them would become vet or a zoo keeper. I didn’t come from a very scientific family and there weren’t any opportunities available to get involved with research as a high schooler.

“I really like math and I thought I wanted to be a physics major, but ultimately I ended up in biology…which is where I should have been the whole time. I didn’t have a great idea what I could do with a biology degree as a high schooler I attended Cornell University which has one of the top animal behavioral programs in the country, and this way my first exposure to the field of behavioral ecology.

“I took an animal behavior course in my second year at Cornell and just fell in love with it. We started watching videos of bowerbirds. Male bowerbirds create these structures, called bowers, for females – they create a platform from straw and sticks, with colorful leaves and even insects. The female will come to a male’s bower and will sit there, waiting for the male to do his mating display, and will then decide if she wants to mate. Males will tear down other bowers and steal from each other to compete for females! After seeing that video I knew what I wanted to do. Later on I had the chance to work on a bowerbird experiment in Australia where I spent three months trekking through the forest, setting up cameras on these bowers, sitting in blinds [essentially like potato sacks so the birds can’t see you watching them], and taking recordings of what they do.

“I’m really attracted to these weird systems where males are flashy and have wild behavioral displays, compare to females. With small animals, such as spiders, if you weren’t looking you wouldn’t know these things are even happening… I find it fascinating.

“To pursue my interest in working with animals, I spent the summer after my sophomore year working in a koala sanctuary in Australia, where I got to learn about animal care. I got involved in research after taking an animal behavior class my junior year. Later, one of the professors advertised that a post-doctoral associate needed a field assistant to help with her honey bee research, and that job sparked my interest in arthropods. I also spent some time my senior year working on a research project related to song preferences in zebra finches…this really got me interested in how animals use different signals to communicate with each other.

“I met Damian Elias [UC Berkeley Assistant Professor and head of the Elias Lab] through a colleague of mine. While I knew of jumping spiders, I didn’t know just how incredible they were and it turned out that this type of system was perfect for the kind of questions I was interested in: those related to communication and sexual selection. I’m in the Environmental Sciences Policy and Management program at UC Berkeley working towards a PhD degree. I love doing research and am also really enjoying participating in outreach activities at local schools – teaching students about insect physiology.” Tell me a bit about the research you are currently conducting.

Girard: “I study the mating behavior of a species of jumping spider. I’m interested in animal communication systems in general, but especially how organisms communicate in a mating context. I am very keen to examine the female perspective – how are females responding to signals from the males? Why have signals evolved the way that they have, and how are females making mating decisions based on these signals?” “What  is one of the more surprising insect behaviors?”

Girard: “The honey bee waggle dance. Honey bees are really neat – they can go out of their hive, find a flower, and come back and give pretty descriptive information to other bees about where that flower is. Back in the hive they do a dance that is composed of a waggle line and then they loop back around in a figure-8, and the angle of the dance relative to a vertical line in the hive communicates the angle other bees should fly out in relationship to the sun in order to find the flower. And the duration of the waggle component corresponds to the distance.

“Researchers can put a feeder somewhere outside the hive, and when a bee finds it and comes back, it will communicate the location of the feeder to other bees using the waggle dance. This system even adjusts as the sun moves during the day, the angle of the dance changes. Additionally, as the food source is depleted the bees advertise a new food source.

“The waggle dance is just one example of a really complicated system that occurs right under our nose, waiting to be explored when we stop and observe.”

Middle school girls in the Bay Area can experience the thrill of scientific discovery from UC Berkeley scientists and students at UC Berkeley’s Expanding Your Horizons event coming up March 3. Madeline Girard is coordinating the day-long program. More information is available here.

Madeline Girard and colleagues from UC Berkeley will also be participating in the Dublin High School Engineering Academy Open House Starring MythBusters on Feburary 22, 2012.

Related articles:

Madeline Girard gives a tour of UC Berkeley’s Elias Lab (including a video of jumping spider mating rituals):

Madeline Girard - UC Berkeley Elias Lab - Collecting Data

Field Work in Australia