Having received her Ph.D. in 2002, Laurie Santos is one of the youngest professors in the psychology department. As head of the “Monkey Lab” — the home of the first observed monkey prostitution — and lecturer for one of the most popular courses this semester (PSYC 171: Sex, Evolution and Human Nature), she’s also one of the coolest.
Except when it comes to music.
She prefaces our interview with a caveat: “I have deeply abysmal taste. The worst of anything possible.”
Indeed, Santos’ musical tastes have always lagged far behind her top-notch monkey business. Her first music purchase — a cassette single of Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl” — is unlikely to make it onto Rolling Stones’ list of the top 100 songs of all time.
Halfway through high school, Santos succumbed to the first boy band craze: the New Kids on The Block. She recalls it as an unfortunate but brief obsession, during which she spent copious amounts of money on posters and concerts. But now that the NKOTB have dropped off the pop charts, she’s a little fuzzy on the details of that phase.
“There may have even been a pilgrimage to one of their houses in the Long Island area,” she confides. “My memory for this is hazy. You know, it was way back in the early ’90s.”
By the time Santos matriculated to that safety school in Cambridge in the early ’90s, she had moved onto the “bad electronica” scene. She developed an addiction to the Trainspotting soundtrack while writing her undergraduate thesis; even today, she can be found ensconced in her SSS office writing papers to the same album.
But with the help of her grad students, Santos has been making up for lost time. While she guides their research on primate cognition, they have slowly educated their beloved mentor in the ways of music. On trips to the summer monkey lab in Puerto Rico, students made mix-tapes of hip tracks and forced her to listen to them while driving around the island.
It took a freak act of natural selection, however, to convince Santos it was time to reexamine her musical tastes. The mysterious overnight deletion of her mp3 collection forced Santos to sit down with her graduate students and receive remedial instruction in music. The most recent addition to her playlist — an album by The Ramones — suggests that Santos is getting the point.
Even the monkeys in Santos’ evolutionary psych course have become involved in her musical education. A few years ago, one undergrad decided to test the monkeys’ musical preferences. Definitive conclusions have yet to be drawn, but Santos insists she didn’t need experimental results to know that some might object to her musical tastes.
“If the monkeys were forced to listen to the New Kids on the Block, they might riot!” she laughed. “I don’t need empirical testing to tell me that.”