Mountain with goats

Petra McDougall

4th year PhD Candidate in Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary

Tell us about yourself

Having spent a little over a decade in both BC and Ontario, I now current reside in Southern Alberta where I work with bighorn sheep on the Eastern Slopes of the Canadian Rockies. When I’m not hanging out with the bighorns, I like to ride my horse, hike, rock climb, go camping, and explore our amazing landscapes with my spouse and 3 young children.

What is your research about?

I study group-living in animals. How do individuals stay together in a social group? And how do they coordinate their activities as a group? One of my key areas of research is in behaviour contagion. You may have noticed yourself ‘catching’ behaviours from others. Laughing and yawning are good examples, but you may have also noticed yourself suddenly feeling hungry when you see others eating, or adjusting your position when a friend leans back in their chair. These contagious behaviours may be one way to synchronize the individuals in a group so the group acts as a single unit and stays together.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

Spending long hours in the wilderness has taught me the importance of slowing down and connecting with nature. Sitting quietly with animals for extended periods of time has allowed me to observe amazing natural events: playful interactions between different species, sightings of rare animals, bear cubs playing in the grass, wild animals giving birth, new fox kits emerging from their dens, male rams clashing horns, and best of all, the excitement of the changing seasons.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

For me, the mental challenges are often the most difficult: experiments that took several weeks to carry out have failed, and data entry into excel sheets is often a mind numbing task, especially when you reach the end and find that the result you had hoped for isn’t there. It’s difficult to let go of work that has taken hundreds of hours to do, but you have to convince yourself that that’s all a normal and valuable part of science. Sometimes negative results end up being valuable too, but if not, learn from them and move on.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

The part of my work that has influenced me the most has been the education and outreach side of it. Whether its introducing new research assistants to field-work, speaking with the public about my research, or teaching students at the university, I’ve found my work as an educator to be an extremely rewarding experience. I certainly hope to include education/outreach in my career path.

How has your research impacted the world?

The research I am conducting contributes to our understanding of how behaviour can be affected by those around us. As a social species, we are very much a product of our social environment, and that can be both a good and bad thing depending on the environment we are exposed to. Understanding how behaviours spread through social groups can have implications for mental and physical health, the spread of knowledge and information, and the spread of behaviours such as aggression or affection. For wild animals, it can also affect the health and survival of an entire group.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

We are only just beginning to understand how behaviour contagion (also sometimes referred to a allomimicry or social facilitation) happens, and we are discovering the great diversity of species that this phenomenon is present in. Future research will likely focus on how this behaviour evolved and what the underlying sensory and neural pathways are.

What motivates you to do research?

When I was young, I did not know that I wanted to do research. What I did know was that I loved watching animals and people, and was very curious about why animals and people behaved in certain ways. What’s interesting is that the more you learn about a topic, the more questions you have! Reading lots and spending time observing behaviour generates more questions, and these questions motivate me to try and find answers.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

My eureka moment does not have to do with the data I have worked with, but with what happens to information after we’ve discovered it. The single, most important thing that I’ve learned in grad school is that science must be shared for it to be valuable. Figure out what makes the information exciting or interesting and convey that in your writing, teaching, presentations, and discussion about the topic. Enthusiasm for a subject gets people’s attention. Big words and hard-to-understand language does not. When people understand your subject, and are excited about it, science makes progress - not only in furthering our understanding of the topic, but also in using the information and applying it to our everyday lives.

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