Gita Gnanadesikan

As an evolutionary biologist and comparative psychologist, I am fascinated by the diversity of animal behavior and cognition. Why do individuals and species behave so differently from one another? And how do genetics, environment, and experience combine to produce the variation that we observe? My dissertation focused on assistance dogs, designing and implementing experiments that measure dog cognition and behavior in meaningful ways and then exploring the extent to which genetics and hormones explain the differences we observe between individuals. While addressing these basic questions about the structure and development of cognition and behavior, this work also helps our collaborators make data-informed decisions about breeding and training assistance dogs for people with disabilities. During the course of this work, I became particularly intrigued by the neurohormone oxytocin and the difficulties involved in measuring it. Oxytocin is often thought of as “the love hormone”, and we know that it’s involved in infant care, pair-bonding, and human-animal relationships. But it’s surprisingly difficult to measure. I have assessed multiple existing techniques and developed new methods, hoping to improve our measurements of this important molecule. I am looking forward to applying this work to a new study system as a postdoc at Emory. I am working with Marcela Benítez to study the role of oxytocin in cooperation between capuchin monkeys. As an Emory FIRST postdoctoral fellow, I am also looking forward to teaching at the Atlanta University Center Consortium.

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