So, you're some kind of monkey, right?
I'm so glad that you asked. This is a very common misconception. Actually, I am a great ape -- an orangutan (Pongo Ponginae) to be specific. I know it's hard to keep all the various non-human primate species straight, but here is a good rule of thumb: Monkeys have tails, but apes don't. Just keep that in mind and the next time you introduce yourself to a primate you'll at least be in the right ballpark.
How did you get involved in child development research? Isn't that unusual for an orangutan?
Well, I don't like to make broad generalizations, but yes I would say that developmental psychology is probably an unusual profession for members of my species. My big break came when Derek Lyons and his research team did an open casting call at FAO Schwarz, looking for a non-human primate to play an important role in a new imitation study. I guess I just had the right look for the part, and the rest is history. Plus, I did of course study developmental psychology at Oxford, so that was a helpful qualification. Derek went to Oxford as well, so we really hit it off at my audition chatting about punting and such.
You have a degree from Oxford? I didn't know that they admitted orangutans.
Yes, that surprises many people. The English system is very different from our own though, and they take a very liberal minded view of non-human species.
What is your exact role in Derek's research?
Well, Derek is interested in a curious phenomenon called overimitation -- it's the tendency of young children to imitate adults' actions very precisely, even when some of those actions are clearly inefficient and unnecessary. Now, we all know that children love to imitate, but the surprising thing about overimitation is that it is so extreme.
Derek has found that children will overimitate actions that even chimpanzees can identify as unnecessary, and that they will continue to do so when there is considerable incentive to accomplish their goal as quickly as possible. If you haven't seen it already, you might check out the New York Times article that science journalist Carl Zimmer wrote about Derek's work -- it provides a really good overview.
Anyhow, my job is to serve as one of those incentives that encourages children to accomplish a goal as quickly as possible. Basically I race with kids to see who can get a toy turtle out of a puzzle box the fastest. I can't divulge too much more about the specifics of the study that I'm involved in prior to its publication, but it's certainly an exciting line of work.
Are you affiliated with a research university?
I am a distinguished scientist in residence in the Yale University psychology department, where Derek is currently completing his PhD. My office is in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, room 207A.
Because of my demanding research schedule I do not hold regularly scheduled office hours, but I am available by appointment.
I'm jealous of your fur's amazing shine and bounce. What's your secret?
Thanks for noticing. I use an organic lavender and mint conditioner every morning, and brush my fur for twenty five minutes before bed each night.