Blue Devil of the Week: A Renowned Baboon Scientist – Duke Today

Posted: September 23, 2019 at 8:45 am

Name: Susan Alberts

Title: Robert F. Durden Professor of Biology and Chair of Dukes Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

Years at Duke: 21

What she does: Susan Alberts spends most of her work hours looking at or thinking about baboons.

Since the late 1980s, Alberts has worked with the Amboseli Baboon Research Project to gather data on hundreds of baboons in Kenyas Amboseli National Park. She studies how the social and physical environments of the baboons determine their life outcomes.

She has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles in the fields of anthropology, genetics, endocrinology, biologyand primatology.

Her research has led to a number of findings. Her team discovered that female baboons that integrated into their social groups have higher offspring survival rates. Meanwhile, baboons who experience adversity early in life droughts, death of a parent or a mother that is socially isolated die younger than other baboons.

Were not just understanding baboons but uncovering general principals about how social life affects opportunities and health, Alberts said. Theres a lot of coincidence in how social issues affect baboons and humans.

Alberts teaches The Life and Work of Darwin, Behavioral Ecology and the Evolution of Animal Behavior, Concepts in Evolutionary Anthropology and other courses in the biology and evolutionary anthropology departments at Duke.

She also takes graduate and undergraduate students with her to Kenya for field research.

Were staying in our research camp for weeks with not a lot of modern convenience, she said. Its always exciting to watch the students adjust and thrive in a completely new environment.

What she loves about Duke: Alberts cant think of another university that would allow her the opportunity to focus on research as much as the leadership at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

Duke is one of the few places I have the freedom to do to my kind of research, Alberts said. It takes a lot of infrastructure to do this abroad. It takes good grant support. It takes good administrative support. Duke has worked really hard to make all this possible.

Memorable day at work: The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit organization of the countrys leading scientific researchers, elected Alberts as a member in May. The recognition is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive.

I was thrilled and honored, Alberts said. Its my job now to pay it forward and make the most of the opportunity.

Special object in her office: When the National Academy of Sciences named Alberts a member, she popped a bottle of champagne and placed the cork among a collection of eight others on a bookshelf in her office. Other corks represent each Ph.D. student Alberts has advised.

We always celebrate with a glass of champagne when they defend their thesis, Alberts said. I collect the corks because each of those moments is a huge event. I feel so much admiration to my students.

Best advice received: As as postdoctoral researcher, Alberts received a Fellowship at Harvard Universitys Society of Fellows, a group of scholars recognized for their academic potential, after completing her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

Alberts didnt feel qualified for the fellowship and called her mentor, Jeanne Altmann, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, saying I think they made a mistake!

Altmann told Alberts, It doesnt matter, just dont get immobilized.

Jeannes advice helped me focus, Alberts said. I had to show up and do my best.

First job: Alberts worked at a Seattle bakery called The Little Bread Company after high school. She arrived every morning around 4:30 to knead and mix doughs for whole wheat, rye and sourdough loaves of bread.

I liked working with my hands, Alberts said. I learned so much about how you work with people coming from different backgrounds and who have different expectations, desires and abilities. It really helped me develop.

Something most people dont know about her: Alberts loves jigsaw puzzles. She recently worked on a 500-piece puzzle with the image of a sea turtle.

I dont have much time to do them, but I love them, she said. I love the process of just starting out with a big mess and putting it into a coherent image.

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference?Nominate that personfor Blue Devil of the Week

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Blue Devil of the Week: A Renowned Baboon Scientist - Duke Today

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