Daniel Blumstein grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, escaping to the nearby wilderness to backpack, canoe, and mountaineer surrounded by plants and animals. Shortly after beginning college at the University of Colorado Boulder, in 1982, he realized that it was possible to make a career out of studying animal behavior. Thereafter, it was an easy decision for him to double major in environmental conservation and environmental, population, and organismic biology. After graduating, while cycling around the world, Blumstein happened upon a group of golden marmots (Marmota caudata)—cat-sized, semi-social rodents that live in burrows—in Khunjerab National Park in Pakistan, kicking off a decades-long interest in marmots that persists to this day.
He completed a PhD in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis in 1994, and eventually landed a faculty position at the University of California, Los Angeles. As an ethologist, he studies social and antipredator behaviors in many animals, including all 15 species of marmots. When asked why he chose these charismatic rodents, Blumstein has a quick answer: “They’re diurnal and they have an address,” making them easy to mark and trap for study over long periods of time. Marmots also use an intricate series of verbal calls to signal danger, making them an ideal species in which to study the evolution of fear. In “Opinion: What Animals Can Teach Us About Fear” in this issue, Blumstein shares insights he’s gleaned into the human emotion from more than 35 years of watching animals behave.
For Genna Reed, it was the lack of her own backyard growing up in New Jersey that first made her interested in the environment. As an undergraduate in biology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and later as a master’s student majoring in environmental policy design at the same institution, Reed spent summers analyzing water samples from the nearby Hackensack Meadowlands, a series of sprawling wetlands subjected to decades of environmental abuse by industrial development. The recognition that corporations could shirk responsibility for actions that polluted the environment—and the toll those decisions exacted on local ecosystems and human communities—made her realize that “as much as I loved doing the work in the lab, I wanted to help bridge the work to the policy and help protect people’s health,” Reed says.
After stints at the Environmental Protection Agency and the public interest organization Food & Water Watch, Reed joined the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2015, where she is now the lead science and policy analyst for the organization’s Center for Science and Democracy. Reed works to combat scientific misinformation, an endeavor made even more essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus, she explains, has created an accompanying “infodemic”—an overabundance of information, some of it false, that sows confusion and distrust. “During a pandemic, that is incredibly dangerous,” Reed says. “There are lives at stake.” In this issue, she shares how scientists can leverage their knowledge to help the public make informed choices and how the onus falls on each person to advocate for sound science in federal decision-making.
Paul J. Zak may be the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University in California, but it would be a mistake to paint him as just an economist. While Zak does hold bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and economics from San Diego State University and a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, he is also a certified phlebotomist and a self-taught neuroscientist. Zak views economics as a lens through which to study the mechanisms behind human choices, he says. “Economics ultimately is about decisions, and so decisions are a wonderful fulcrum to understand the variations [in behavior] across individuals.”
One of Zak’s main research focuses has been oxytocin, a hormone and neuropeptide. Little research existed in the early 2000s on the role of this “love hormone” in humans. Zak suspected oxytocin might be involved in trust, generosity, and charitable giving, aspects of our social selves that are “important for humans economically and socially.” He first showed that changes in oxytocin could be measured in blood rather than spinal taps. By combining multiple streams of physiological data—cardiac rhythms, nervous system activity, and skin conductance, in addition to levels of oxytocin and other signaling molecules—Zak developed a new measure called “immersion,” which can predict a person’s likelihood of donating to a charitable cause with 82 percent accuracy. In this issue, he shares more about the experiments that led him to launch the company Immersion Neuroscience to help clients better predict people’s behavior.