Laura Lewis, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley

It all started with a baby goat. Laura Lewis’s yard just outside Berkeley, California was overgrown with dry grass and brush, so her parents borrowed a goat from their friend to eat the grass and clear out the yard. Although a human four-year old and a goat learning to butt its head don’t go very well together, Laura was fascinated by the goat and studied its every move. What was this creature thinking and feeling? Did it enjoy eating grass? Would it have been happier eating grass with a goat friend? Headbutts aside, the goat sparked in Laura an interest in animals, behavior, and scientific inquiry more generally. This interest has led Laura to where she is now: a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley studying how chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children perceive and express emotions. 

Laura feels lucky that she had many opportunities to express her scientific interests throughout her childhood. Her elementary school had an annual science fair, where she presented projects on cats’ taste preferences (they hate mustard and lettuce) and whether you literally can teach an old dog new tricks (you can!). But her most impactful experience with science came in high school, when she participated in a science program for students of color called SMASH Academy. Over three summers, for five weeks each, Laura lived in UC Berkeley dorms and took college-level STEM courses with other scientifically-curious students of color. Of the experience, Laura says, “The most important part was doing science surrounded by people who looked like me. It was the first time I really felt like I belonged in a science classroom.”

“The most important part was doing science surrounded by people who looked like me. It was the first time I really felt like I belonged in a science classroom.”

This experience carried Laura into undergrad at Duke University, where she immediately knew she wanted to get involved in scientific research. She joined Brian Hare’s lab as a research assistant, observing ring-tailed lemurs in Duke’s Lemur Center, which contains the largest population of lemurs outside of Madagascar and is where the popular 90s TV show Zoboomafoo was filmed. For her senior thesis, Laura shifted to studying cognition in chimpanzees at the North Carolina Zoo because she wanted to study complex social cognition, and chimps have richer social lives than lemurs. 

Laura has fond memories of spending all day at the chimpanzee exhibit, equipped with a chimp-safe touchscreen loaded with lab-created games to understand how chimps learn about hierarchies. For example, if a chimp learns that object A is more important than object B, and then learns that object B is more important than object C, will it know that object A is more important than object C? Laura found that chimps could indeed learn both social and non-social hierarchies, and even showed memory for those learned hierarchies 6 months later. Of her experience working with Dr. Hare, Laura says that he was her “first huge[ly] supportive mentor. He saw a lot of possibility in me as a scientist. He encouraged me into this field.” Laura received similar support and excellent mentorship from Dr. Hare’s lab manager Rachna Reddy and his PhD student Christopher Krupenye, who both brought Laura on as a research assistant for their respective research projects. This gave her the confidence to continue to pursue the scientific questions that interested her in graduate school.

Laura entered Harvard’s PhD program in Human Evolutionary Biology, where she was excited to use cutting-edge eye-tracking technology to study what chimpanzees and bonobos pay attention to and remember. Unfortunately, early in her PhD program, Laura experienced what she describes as a “failed mentorship relationship.” The advisor that she was set to work with left Harvard after Laura’s first year, while Laura decided to continue her graduate studies at Harvard. This difficult decision forced Laura to seek out new mentorship early on in her graduate school career.  “After that failed relationship, I really lost confidence in myself as a scientist. Anytime that I walked into a room in my department, I felt people thought of me as a failed scientist,” Laura says.

In looking for a new advisor, Laura turned to Harvard’s Psychology department, where she joined the lab of Jason Mitchell. Despite Dr. Mitchell’s focus on human behavior, he gave Laura the freedom to continue to study exactly what she was interested in – non-human primates. In one study, Laura found that when primates were looking at pictures of group mates, they looked longer at group mates of the dominant sex. (Chimpanzees have male-dominant social structures, while bonobos have female-dominant ones.) In addition, while apes were equally interested in group mates and strangers of the subordinate sex, when looking at faces of the dominant sex, they were much more interested in group mates than in strangers. These findings demonstrate that primates pay closer attention to more socially relevant individuals. Time spent looking can also be used to assess long-term memory: Both chimps and bonobos looked longer at pictures of former group members than pictures of strangers, even if the former group member had died as long as 10 years ago. Since Laura already found that primates look longer at more socially relevant faces, then this finding demonstrates that these primates have memory that goes back at least 10 years.

Despite the stress that her failed mentor relationship caused, it led to new opportunities and lessons about academia and mentorship. As a woman of color, Laura was uncertain about finding a mentor in someone who did not share those identities, but Dr. Mitchell showed her that mentorship can come from anywhere, even in the places that you might least expect it. “It really forced me to seek mentorship from people that I hadn’t necessarily assumed I would receive strong mentorship from,” she says. Laura is still in frequent contact with many of her mentors, including those from her undergrad lab. Further, she has used what she’s learned from them in her own mentorship. At Harvard, Laura was part of the Greener Scott Scholars Mentorship Program, which connects Black undergraduates with Black graduate students who share their interests. Recently, two of Laura’s mentees landed prestigious summer research positions. “Once they got that win – that acceptance – I felt like I had just gotten that win too,” she says.

Currently, Laura is a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley, where she works with Alison Gopnik and Jan Engelmann. Laura plans to directly compare cognition in humans to cognition in non-human primates. Specifically, her research investigates the comprehension of emotional expressions. Humans, chimps, and bonobos all interpret the emotions of others through their facial expressions; what can we learn about human evolution from these shared behaviors? “I’m really hoping to dive into a new framework, which is called the ‘Emotion as Information’ framework,” Laura says. “We use the emotional expressions of others to not only learn about their mental states, but also about our environment as well.” For example, if you witnessed someone take a sip from a mug and make a disgusted face, you would instantly know both that that person didn’t like the drink – their mental state – and also that what is in the mug is maybe not very desirable – your environment. In addition, while Laura previously worked with nonhuman primates that lived in zoo settings, during her postdoc she plans to travel to Uganda and Kenya to study chimpanzees in sanctuary settings. 

Laura is not just a scientist. “I call myself a Blewish mermaid,” she says. “I’m Black and Jewish, and I call myself a mermaid because I’m obsessed with the ocean. I love swimming in the ocean, I love surfing, I love being on boats, and I love the beach.” She also loves being outside and exercising more generally, from running to yoga to rock climbing.

“I call myself a Blewish mermaid… I’m Black and Jewish, and I call myself a mermaid because I’m obsessed with the ocean. I love swimming in the ocean, I love surfing, I love being on boats, and I love the beach.”

Laura is also deeply passionate about building community, both within the academic bubble and outside of it. Within academia, one way that she has sought to build a diverse community is through the creation of the Diversity and Inclusion task force in her department at Harvard. Another way is through the Greener Scott Scholars Mentorship Program mentioned earlier. Outside of academia, Laura continues to be involved in SMASH, the program that gave her confidence in her academic abilities at the start of her scientific career, as a member of their alumni board.

“Of course, science is challenging and there are really hard chapters. But you should definitely be seeking out enjoyment in your science.”

Back on the same campus where she first participated in SMASH 12 years ago, Laura has come a long way since the baby goat and those high school summers in the Berkeley dorms. But still, three things have remained true for Laura along the way. First, seeking out a community is essential, especially for scientists of color. Laura is a Managing Coordinator for The Black in Biological Anthropology Collective (BiBA), a cross-institution group that aims to connect Black scholars in biological anthropology to promote mutual support, advocacy, and outreach programs. Laura cites BiBA as a space where she can shake off that feeling of being the “only one” like her in an academic setting. Second, mentors provide a system of support and encouragement, and can be found anywhere if you are willing to look outside your comfort zone. Once you’ve found your mentors, lean on them and trust them to help you. And finally? Have fun. “If you’re not having fun in science, something’s a little off,” Laura says. “Of course, science is challenging and there are really hard chapters. But you should definitely be seeking out enjoyment in your science.”

Laura Lewis, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. Twitter | LinkedIn

by Ben Silver

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