Alicia Rich is Well on Her Way to Becoming the Kind of Primatologist She Saw in a Book her 2nd Grade Teacher Shared with Her so Many Years Ago

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From enthusiastic second grader to gorilla keeper and finally to research assistant, Alicia has pursued her dream of becoming a primatologist with all of her passion. She is also the first to acknowledge that the Honors College has helped her along the road to Kenya. "I think I will owe the Honors College a lot for the rest of my life now. They took a working-class high school student from a small town and gave her a chance to think outside of the box she was raised in," she says. Alicia believes that critical thinking and teamwork, two major components of the core curriculum, will help her in Africa and during all of her future field studies. She will board her plane to Kenya with a hopeful and grateful spirit.

While I've encountered my fair share of critics and pessimists who thought I'd never be able to make it to this point, or that my field just wasn't worth it, the number of supporters I've found within the Robert E Cook Honors College and beyond these past few years have far outnumbered and overshadowed them

For Alicia Rich her childhood dream of being a primatologist when she grew up. came to fruition at the Robert E. Cook Honors College, and this summer she is going all the way to Kenya for the research experience of a lifetime.

Alicia was offered a position as the research assistant for Dr. Marina Cords, a professor in the department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. She will spend her summer trekking through Kenya's Kakamega forest studying female cooperation in blue monkeys, a species known for forming territorial coalitions. Her research will focus on how females create these alliances during grooming and other relaxed social behaviors.

Alicia already has a good idea of what her research and daily life in Africa will be like. "I'll be following four or five troops around for about ten hours a day collecting data on certain individuals and encounters," she explains. "The evenings are spent entering data and meeting with the other field researchers to discuss each day's findings. Then on my off-days I'll have the occasional chance to ride into the town of Kakamega for supplies and such. I'll be living there until December 1st, so about six months."

Moving to Africa is a thrilling prospect for Alicia, who has had a passion for primates, especially gorillas, since the day her second grade teacher introduced the class to a book about primatology.     "I was amazed and instantly hooked," Alicia remembers. "My parents still chuckle about their reactions when I came home from school and said, 'I decided today that I'm going to be a primatologist when I grow up.' My dad says that his first reaction was to look up the word primatologist, while my mother wrote it off as a phase that would probably pass. It never did."

Many were skeptical about Alicia's prospects when she came to IUP with her childhood dream of becoming a primatologist still intact. Undaunted, she refused to give up her passion and found refuge in the atmosphere of the Robert E Cook Honors College. "While I've encountered my fair share of critics and pessimists who thought I'd never be able to make it to this point, or that my field just wasn't worth it, the number of supporters I've found within the Robert E Cook Honors College and beyond these past few years have far outnumbered and overshadowed them," Alicia says.

She continued pursuing primatology and was able to get an internship as a gorilla researcher at the Pittsburgh Zoo. "When I began interning any doubts I had that primatology was right for me were instantly destroyed. I love that their communication and most of their behavior is so subtle. I feel like I discover something new about the dynamics of the troop every day. The complexity and frequency of social behavior in primates is rivaled by few other animal orders. Because I've fallen in love with evolutionary theory and the origins of human behavior, studies of primates, both in captivity and in the wild, are incredibly useful," Alicia says. Her experience as an intern had both personal and professional benefits; her supervisor at the zoo, Dr. Peter Fashing, helped her find her position in Kenya.

Though the prospect of moving to Africa to study monkeys for six months might deter many students from a life in primatology, Alicia's experiences as an undergraduate have more than prepared her for the challenge of Kenyan life. Alicia participated in a course called Primate Behavior and Ecology at the La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica. She and a group of other students spent a month taking an intense class coupled with hours of field study. Alicia has fond memories of the experience, including waking up before 4:00 a.m. and checking for snakes on the way back to the students' cabins. Not everything about the trip was easy, though.

"The final ten days of the course involved independent research projects," Alicia explains. "That meant long days in the field. I love a challenge, so I chose the white faced capuchin for my project. They are tiny, fast, and quiet. This makes them nearly impossible to find in the lush Costa Rican rain forest. I think that was the first time I ever considered giving up on my goal. It was only for a brief moment though, and I simply got back up and kept trekking. Somehow I pulled together a project that I was proud of, and it made me realize I was still right for field research."

"The money the Robert E Cook Honors College has given me means so much more to me and to my family than the people that donated it will ever understand," she says. "This is something I could never afford to do on my own, but I was determined to make happen somehow. The enhancement fund provided me that final link to my goal that was so important in creating my future."

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