Severine Hex

Class of 2018

Hometown: Boise, Idaho

What is your College Scholar project?
My goal is to explore the possibilities of non-human language in other social taxa through numerous levels of organization, from mechanistic and neural to social and ethological levels. The goal of my research would be to look at several questions: 1. how social species would benefit from language and how language is important to maintaining social cohesion, 2. a matrix or continuum style definition of language that differentiates features that must exist in language from those that happen to occur in human language, 3. explore the functions and mechanisms of language as it may potentially exist in various species. My proposed investigation will most specifically investigate a definition of language as not merely an information transfer device, but as a means for facilitating and maintaining social affiliation between conspecifics. One could argue that language systems specialize in facilitating social interaction between other individuals. If we consider language as an inherently social adaptation for creating and maintaining social connections, it becomes apparent that language is a tool that has been employed across multiple species to address a similar problem: how do animals form and maintain productive bonds with social partners, ranging from single conspecifics to social networks? My proposed study would consist of four stages. The first two stages will be a case study investigating a social affiliative vocalization in the zebra finch. The third will be a literature review to construct a comparative phylogenetic tree in order to find natural ecology features that predict the presence of vocalizations that serve to solidify pair bonds. Finally, I will conduct a literature review and critique that will incorporate ideas from philosophy, psychology and linguistics to evaluate the implications of my previous findings. In order to complete this plan, I will be combining classes from Neurobiology and Behavior, Linguistics, Psychology, Computer Science and Philosophy in order to conduct comparative and interdisciplinary research and theoretical exploration.

I am fortunate to be a Rawlings Presidential Research Scholar, which will enable me to more effectively pursue my intellectual interests.  I attended the Animal Behavior Society conference in August, and intend to attend more, including the Comparative Cognition Society conference, and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology conference.

What are your most important extra-curricular activities?
The most influential extracurricular activity that I engage in is my involvement in the B.A.B.Y. lab. Through this lab I am able to engage with fellow like-minded individuals in a setting that encourages progressive and cutting-edge thought on topics such as social impacts on vocal development in both birds and human infants. The discussions I have had in this lab have been crucial to maturing and shaping my thinking as I have begun developing my focus for this project.

Talk about any summer internships or programs you’ve attended?
Over the summer of 2016 I worked as an REU intern in the Crystal Lab at Indiana University, where I was intimately involved in experiments that sought to explore how rats employ episodic memory. We hypothesized that rats employ episodic replay in order to remember lists of items in context, and used an N-back paradigm and presentation of various odors in order to ask this question.

What do you dream of doing after graduation?
After graduation I intend to continue on in pursuit of a PhD, with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor at a research institution like Cornell. The project that I am beginning for the College Scholar Program is the area in which I hope to continue researching for the rest of my life. My biggest dream is to, in cooperation with the university that I am working at, start a research "zoo" of sorts where researchers and students can conduct ethological and behavioral studies in naturalistic-like settings with animals that, due to husbandry difficulties, are difficult to study in a lab—essentially a middle ground between the control of a lab and the enriched and naturalistic setting of fieldwork. Furthermore, this zoo would also allow the public to become more intimately acquainted with the science being conducted and develop a more profound appreciation for the other species with which we share this planet. Through this interface, researchers may be able to garner support and funding from the public without the need to frame their research objectives around the agendas of grant agencies.