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USOAR grant funds serious monkey business

January 31, 2013
Sarah Stuebing and friend

Sarah Stuebing and friend

Sarah Stuebing spent five weeks last summer peering into the faces of monkeys from the Amazon, but it was all for science.

“Understanding the use of facial expressions in our evolutionary ancestors can help further our knowledge of human facial expressions,” said Stuebing, 20, a junior biology major at NIU who hopes one day to be a large-animal veterinarian.

Her project was funded in part by a grant from Northern Illinois University’s Undergraduate Student Opportunities in Artistry and Research (USOAR) program, which provides opportunities for NIU students to do original research.

The grant helped Stuebing travel to La Cumbre, Argentina, where she volunteered at an animal shelter caring for a wide variety of animals, most importantly a population of 150 black howler monkeys. She filmed the monkeys during meal time, focusing on their interactions and facial expressions.

When she returned to DeKalb, she analyzed the data focusing on five specific expressions, one of which was previously unobserved. She worked with anthropology professor Leila Porter, who helped her develop the project. She hopes to return to the center for a second round of research.

“After I came home, I got ideas for things I could have done differently. It would be nice to go back with more understanding,” she said.

Sarah Stuebing and friendIn particular, she hopes to study which facial expressions are learned and which are instinctive. Ultimately, she hopes that the uniqueness of her work will merit its publication in an academic journal.

This is Stuebing’s second time participating in an undergraduate research program. As a freshman and sophomore, she participated in the Research Rookies program.

“I have had crazy ideas and gone for them, and I am just glad that the university was willing to support me,” Stuebing said. “You just have to put in the work, and the university is willing to meet you half-way.”

USOAR accepts proposals twice a year, endorsed by a faculty member willing to be a mentor for the research project. If approved, students are eligible for a grant up to $2,500 to help them cover the costs of their project.

The experience afforded by USOAR was unique and rewarding in many ways, Stuebing said, including ways that went beyond the research.

“USOAR gives you the freedom to create your own project, implement your own ideas, and learn what you would like to learn. My USOAR experience changed my life,” Stuebing said. “I will never forget all of the animals that I became so attached to, and how they became attached to me. It is an amazing feeling to have a baby monkey recognize you from a distance, run up to you, and cuddle up against your neck.”

by Constance Ervins