Meet Erin Kane, field primatologist and ballet dancer!
Hi, I'm Erin Kane!
What kind of work do you do?
I am a primatologist, working on my Ph.D. in anthropology at Ohio State University. People are sometimes surprised to hear that primatology is part of anthropology, which studies human behavior, biology, and culture. Most people are familiar with cultural anthropology, which puts human culture in a comparative context, and I like to think of primatology in a similar way. We put human biology, ecology, anatomy, and behavior in a comparative context by studying those aspects of our closest relatives, the primates.
Photo of Erin Kane.
I’m very interested in the relationship between ecology and behavior. Right now, I’m very focused on completing my dissertation, which studies the way changes in food availability affect the behavior, feeding ecology, and endocrinology of Diana monkeys living in Tai National Park, Cote d’Ivoire.
Monkey eating a fruit.
This is a female Diana monkey eating one of their favorite fruits, Sacoglottis gabonensis.
My research is a lot of fun to do because it takes on so many different forms. I’ve spent about 19 months in the rainforest conducting my dissertation research, which is primarily spent following groups of monkeys and observing their social and feeding behavior, and collecting any fecal samples I see them deposit. When I get back to the US, I work in a lab analyzing hormone concentrations in the fecal samples I collected so I can assess their stress and reproduction. I also get to do a lot of writing, and I teach introductory anthropology classes in my department.
Tin-roofed house with porch.
This is my house in the rainforest!
How did you become interested in biology, and what did you study?
When I was in 7th grade, my dad had me read Jane Goodall’s book In the Shadow of Man, which is about her experience studying chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s. I loved it, and told myself at age 12 that that was what I was going to be when I grew up! I have been focused on that goal since then.
I knew I wanted to work in Africa, so I chose to study French in high school, and then I was lucky enough to have the option of studying Swahili in college. I had some really wonderful teachers, including my 8th grade science teacher who actually took me to hear Jane Goodall speak when she was giving a lecture at his alma mater.
Most professors who study primates in the United States are in anthropology departments because of the connection to studies of human evolution, but ecology and organismal biology are also vital to actually going out and doing field research. In college, I double majored in anthropology and environmental studies, and also took a lot of classes in African Studies in order to be more effective at fieldwork.
I worked in a paleontology lab preparing fossils for my undergraduate advisor. Tab [the advisor] took me with him to Kenya on a paleontology project, and recommended that I work as a field assistant to one of his graduate students in order to determine whether or not I liked doing field research on primates, so I spent about 5 months in Peru studying saddleback tamarins.
Erin pushing through a tall thicket of bamboo.
Tromping through the bamboo in the Amazon.
Now, I’m completing my Ph.D. in anthropology, with a focus on primatology. It’s very satisfying to know that 12-year-old Erin really did know what she wanted to be when she grew up!
Erin as a child, sitting in a tree.
Very young Erin in a tree.
What do you do for fun in your spare time?
When I’m not on campus or in the rainforest, my favorite thing to do is dance. I especially love ballet, but I also enjoy blues, swing, and salsa dancing!
Erin in a ballet pose, standing on top of a stone wall overlooking a scenic vista.
I teach and take class at a local studio in Columbus. I also have two excellent cats—Sadie and Triceratops—and I like hanging out with them and playing fetch (they’re very smart).
Erin's cat sitting by a computer.
What’s your one piece of advice for people interested in biology?
Don’t feel like someone who is a biologist has to be stuck indoors in a lab all day—you can definitely make a career of being outside doing interesting things as a biologist!
If you can, try to get experience shadowing someone or participating in research or a field school before you decide for sure on what you want to do with your life. For example, if you discover that you’re actually really not a fan of bugs and spiders, maybe working in a rainforest isn’t for you—but if you then discover that you’re really great at lab work, you can apply your interest to a whole different set of questions!