Eduardo Fernandez

Primate anthropology researchers and scholars from universities across New England and the mid-Atlantic converged to hold the Northeastern Evolutionary Primatology group’s annual meeting at Kroon Hall this past Friday and Saturday.

The annual meeting was hosted for the first time by the Yale Department of Anthropology. The conference provides a supportive environment for primatology researchers to convey their research to academic peers and develop their presentation skills, according to event organizer Claudia Valeggia. While the majority of researchers who attended were professionals in the field, 15 undergraduate students and a handful of graduate students also presented their research at the conference.

Graduate students from Yale and other institutions were awarded prizes based on their talks and posters. Alyssa Arre GRD ’23 won second prize for her research on the developmental changes in selective attention to socio-emotional stimuli in rhesus monkeys.

“What was really inspiring was the significant demand from students, both undergraduate and graduate,” said Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, one of the main organizers of the event. “They want this as a space to learn, to communicate and as a forum to develop their ideas with faculty. That’s the spirit of this conference.”

The conference began Friday evening in Luce Hall with a keynote talk by Boston University professor Eva Garrett on the evolution of the primate vomeronasal system, an organ that detects pheromones by scent. The following day, attendees made their way to Kroon Hall for a series of keynote presentations that were divided into three thematic sessions: foraging, feeding and nutrition; sociality and social behavior; and genes and phenotypes. The three sessions were interspersed with ample breaks for socializing, Valeggia said.

Valeggia said this new approach, which focused on fostering social and academic dialogue between researchers, was highly beneficial.

“We had some novel ideas on how to run the series of talks — it was quite unique,” she said. “We turned things around to allow more time for discussion and interaction.”

For example, she added, organizers designed a speed-dating-style lunch to allow for participants to meet others and network rather than have attendees go into town to eat in small groups.

The Yale undergraduate students at the conference presented their work through a poster showcase, while the graduate students shared their findings in keynote speeches followed by a panel discussion. Marcela Lopez ’19, one of the undergraduate students who presented at the conference, said it is important to make primate anthropology research known, adding that “studying primates gives us a glimpse into why humans are the way they are and gives us a unique perspective on human evolution.”

Lopez said one of the strengths of the Anthropology Department is that it is a tight-knit community. In particular, she said, as a Latina, she appreciates having a Latina academic adviser to support her academic ambitions.

Part of the Northeastern Evolutionary Primatology group’s mission is to prepare students, both undergraduate and graduate, to enter the field after graduation, Valeggia said, adding that the conference offers students a platform to practice presenting research and ultimately gain skills applicable in the academic realm.

Graduate students who took part in the keynote presentation and panel found the event rewarding as well. Elaine Guevara GRD ’19, a graduate student in the Anthropology Department studying the genetic and physiological basis of aging in sifaka lemurs and chimpanzees, said she values the way in which the conference was organized. It was much easier to approach people and have conversations, she added, unlike the dynamic at larger meetings.

“[The conference] brings together a bunch of really strong researchers from around the area,” Guevara said. “Here at Yale, we only have two primatologists, so conferences like this are crucial for dispersion of information.”

The conference was established in 2014 at Rutgers University.

Josh Purtell  | josh.purtell@yale.edu