Dr. Heidi Lyn
Asst. Professor - Psychology
When was your aha moment?
There were two. The first was when I was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a linguistics and
computer science major. I was in a linguistics class and they were talking about the sign language work with
chimpanzees in the 1960's. I couldn't believe that that had happened and that it wasn't something that everybody in
the world knew about. About a year later, my mom was taking my sister on a graduation trip to Hawaii. My sister called
me and asked if I wanted to come watch humpback whales in Hawaii. I said, "Yes, of course!" While I was there, the
staff at the Dolphin Institute found out I was in computers and linguistics. They told me to go their dolphin lab in
Honolulu and they set it up for us. I went to visit and applied for an internship the next year. I ended up spending the
next four years there doing language work with dolphins. From that point on, my course was set.
What projects are you currently working on?
We are constantly working with a lot of animals. We are at the humane society three to four days a week. I have two
post-docs, three students, an intern, and undergraduates working there to gather data. You need someone holding the
dog, someone manipulating, someone record keeping, and someone there to be a backup. We just finished a project at
the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies with sea lions, and we are going to be proposing a new one there. One of my
students is working with the bush babies, which are small primates, in Hattiesburg. We have ongoing projects at ACCI
(Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative) in Des Moines, IA. The bonobos that I worked with through grad school are
there. We are going to start crowdfunding for that soon.
What Prompted you to crowdfund?
We are having a remarkably difficult time getting standard scientific funding. We fall into this crack between animal
behavior and biological anthropology at NSF. Because we are cognitive, animal behavior is really very biological in
nature, and because we don't work with people, the current partnering officer at biological anthropology wasn't
interested in the questions we were asking. The people at NSF said there's really no mechanism that covers what we
do. There's a research crowdfunder called experiments.com. The first project we put forward was to fund the humane
society work. Here is the video we created to generate interest in the project:
What is your biggest passion?
The evolution of language is my main interest and always has been. I have been on the organizing committee for the
Evolution of Language Conference for a while. It is a biannual conference. The first one I attended was in 1998 in
London. I have only missed one since then. I put a bid in for the conference two years ago and we are going to bring it
to Tulane University in New Orleans, March 21-24th, 2016. I am the chair of the local organizing committee and we
have several neuro people coming to talk about the location of communication and language in the brain. We have
people who are going to talk about birds, dolphins, and apes as well. This is the first time the conference has been in
the U.S. in twelve years...it's usually a European conference with 300-350 attendees. All of my grad students are on the
committee with me. They are planning the reception, banquet, etc. My students are amazing. I could not have made
this happen without them!
What Is the ratio of males/females in your field?
The majority of my peer group was female, but the professors were male when I worked with dolphins. In the U.K., it
was 90% female students and about 20% female professors. There is clearly something problematic going on. I am
hoping that the trend will continue to shift, but it is clear to me that there is still some system-wide sexism. There is
plenty of research showing us that's true...females are less likely to get hired, female authored papers are less likely to
get published, and female driven grants are less likely to get funded. I hope we will continue chipping away at that bias.
I have almost all female students. My goal is to support them in the ways that I did not feel supported, and be as
flexible as possible to allow for real life. For example, one of my grad students had a baby last year. Since the day the
baby was born, the baby stays in the office while she's doing work, and comes to our lab meeting every week. I have
been really impressed with the college. Most of us have kids and many of them have been in our offices at one time or
another. There's acceptance that we all need that level of support. It's a nice community.
What are your goals for the future?
My original dream was to have a research facility with both dolphins and apes, and to run comparative testing
with both of them. Also, trying to work with a doggie day care so we have a group of dogs we can work with for a long
period of time. Lastly, I am planning on writing a book titled "Crazy Monkey Stories" or "Tales of a Vegetarian Scientist".
My plan is to have slivers, or chapters, on how the animal mind works and use my personal stories along with them.
If You Could "Pick The Brain" Of Anyone Living Or Dead Who Would It Be?
Jane Goodall. She has talked a lot about the details of her chimpanzee group, but I would try to get a real panorama of
the personalities that she doesn't get to talk about as much. You always hear so much about the big personalities, the
pearls of the group. I want to know about some of those in the group that are normal and more quiet.
What do you do in your spare time?
I attend sci-fi conventions and enjoy costume making. [SEE PHOTO BELOW]
TODAY SHOW APPEARANCE:
COMPARATIVE COGNITION & COMMUNICATION LAB:
Dr. Lyn's children, Halloween 2015.
"OUR GOAL IS TO UNDERSTAND HOW MINDS WORK AS A GENERAL RULE, AND HOW, OR WHY, HUMANS ARE DIFFERENT."