Sunday, May 31, 2015

Week 2: Lemur Training

My lemurs are learning. Some of them are learning fast and some of them are barely getting a hang of it. I have already started testing phase with two lemurs because they have learned to use the apparatus. Any progress is good progress, I guess.

I understand that not all lemurs will have the same performance rate and I accept the fact that some may never learn. My biggest fear is that I will have a small sample size and that all of them are dichromats.

I flew back to NYC for the weekend to see my husband and cats. I have missed them very much. I am grateful that I am about an hour away by plane and I can fly back to see them whenever I want.

Looking forward to work with new individuals next week. It's always interesting to see how they explore a novel object (my apparatus) and how they respond to it.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Raymond Vagell: Current Research

My master’s thesis project is on color vision in ruffed lemurs (Varecia spp.) with Dr. Andrea Baden. My research project will be conducted at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina, where I will be training and running behavioral trials. Using multi-field approaches, I am trying to answer my research questions by incorporating computer programming, robotics, psychophysics, and animal training. I built a subject-mediated automatic remote testing apparatus (SMARTA) to test the Varecia spp. that I will train subjects to use before running trials to test whether they can perceive and discriminate the color red. I will also take blood samples from my subjects to extract genomic DNA for genetic analyses in the Primate Molecular Ecology Lab (PMEL) at Hunter College. I hope that this research can further elucidate whether color vision genotypes in Varecia spp. are expressed phenotypically.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Usability Of My Apparatus

You don't really hear about "usability" when talking about animal researcher as well as animal enrichment. Usability is the ease and learnability of human-made objects. Much is known and researched on when it comes to the usability of human-made objects intended for humans. Take for example, the usability of a door. Doors with a handle is instinctually something you pull. Doors without a handle but a flat metal plate is instinctually something you push. But how do we arrive to that conclusion?

Doors with handles. Do you push or pull? Why?
It's all about usability research and a lot of testing on potential subjects. You gather as many relevant info as you can, use those knowledge to build an object and then have your subjects use those objects while you observe them. This is how you would test your prototype. I wasn't lucky enough to test the usability of my apparatus with the ruffed lemurs before I brought the apparatus down to Duke Lemur Center. However, I have enough data to help me designing and execute my apparatus. Information such as their height when sitting on the ground, what height is their eye level, as well as the best way to stop these lemurs from perching on the apparatus so that they do not pee or poo on the apparatus.

SPOILER ALERT: They are still perching on the apparatus but they are considerate enough to not pee or poo on it ... yet.

However, watching these lemurs use my apparatus for the past 2 weeks has given me valuable information. There are some many variables that go into play on how they learn and utilize my apparatus. Differences in ages and amongst individuals are evident. I won't divulge more into this, but I think it is something interesting to look into as well as important for animal enrichments.

Some of you might be wondering. How do I know this? Well, someone very close to my life is a usability researcher so naturally I have inherited some advice and knowledge from him.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Craisin Acceleration: Why Size and Weight Matter

For a few days, the food rewards inside my apparatus was not dispensing properly. I had wondered what the problem was and like a good scientist that I am, I wrote down all my hypotheses and tested them.

The food reward is too sticky thus sticking to the cup: It was definitely not that the food reward is too sticky. Almost all of them would fall out of the cups.

The distance of cup to chute was too far, therefore the food reward is falling outside of the chute: Wasn't the distance of cup to chute either, although I thought initially it was so as this apparatus was designed with small grapes in mind, not craisins. The food reward was falling into the chute most of the time but there are a few times when it would fall after it passes the chute. It's not a significant reason why the food reward is not dispensing properly.

However, I had an Aha! moment when I realized that the food rewards that didn't get dispensed properly are small pieces of craisins. WEIGHT! It was weight. I need to have craisins that have enough mass to fall from the cup as soon as it drops down and accelerate into the chute. I bought some "whole craisins" which are basically craisins from whole large cranberries instead of varying sizes. I'm happy to report that the food rewards have been dispensing properly today.

Size and weight do matter when it comes to being dispensed properly in my apparatus. Have I mentioned how much they LOVE craisins?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Weekend Distraction: Luna

I adopted a Chihuahua x Pomeranian (Pomchi) puppy over the weekend. I am so used to being surrounded by animals (mostly cats) that being in a foreign place and cooped up in the hotel room was starting to take a toll on me.

Meet Luna Vagell, my emotional support animal. She is a ball of energy (when she's awake, after she had finished her meal)!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Week 1 at Duke Lemur Center

My training with the lemurs is progressing beautifully. There are already some individuals that have went past the exploration phase and are learning to use the apparatus to get a food reward. Of course, much like the universe, you have the ones that are ahead of the learning curve and ones that are way below. It's important to remember though, that sometimes animals that don't learn certain behaviors or tasks doesn't necessarily means that they are not good learners. An "easy" task or behavior for humans might be hard for animals because it might need a complicated cognitive reasoning or sometimes an animal just doesn't have the attention span to learn something. Although some of my lemurs are still exploring and unsure of the apparatus, I am confident that it is only a matter of time that they'll learn to use it. I just hope it doesn't take months hehe.

Today is Friday and it's the end of my first week at the lemur center. Everything is working smoothly. There were some issues with the apparatus (and no doubt will continue to surface) but I am glad I was able to troubleshoot it ASAP. This weekend is Memorial Day weekend and the lemur center is closed on Monday. I'll have a long weekend and a short training week before I fly back to NYC for the weekend.

Retail therapy. I need a personal shopping assistant and a driver and I'm all set.
Oh I went shopping today. I couldn't resist some retail therapy and I think I deserve it. First, I went to Southpoint Mall (The Streets at Southpoint). I bought a nice pair of Sperry shoes (so comfy!) and some shorts at Brooks Brothers (I love Brooks Brothers). Later, I went to my favorite gourmet grocery store, Southern Season. Cause you know, I'm fancy ;)

All in all, today was a good day.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rainy Day

It rained today. A much needed respite from this hot weather.
It is wet, cold, and dreary today in Durham, North Carolina. A stark contrast to what it was this week when it was sunny and temperature in the high 80s. Wet, cold, and dreary is definitely my kind of weather. I managed to only sweat a little bit today thanks to the cool weather. Although, since I need to wear latex gloves during training, my hands feel like they are constantly submerged in a pool of water. I got a built in self moisturizing system haha!

I met two new lemurs today. I can definitely see the difference in learning and curiosity to novel objects amongst different age groups. So far, all my animals have been very cooperative and it was very fun training them to use my apparatus. Or maybe they are just training me to give them food rewards.

I seem to have figured out how to fix my food reward dilemma. Stay tuned. Will let y'all know if resolve it tomorrow. One more day till the weekend!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Indoor Training

I moved my training to indoor enclosures today because of the glare issue (I addressed that on yesterday's post). When indoors, the tablet is able to display the stimuli correctly and is more visible than when outside. If you have used your electronics (cellphone, tablet, laptops, etc ...) outdoors when it is sunny and there's glare, you'll know what I am referring to.

I have also made a few changes in the phone app interface but I realize after using it today that it is still not resolved. I had made it show a number when I tell my conveyer belt to "rewind" or "dispense" but it seems like I wasn't able to reset the number back to 0. Instead, if I rewind past the number 0, it stays at 0 when I dispense so that still throws me off with the number of food reward dispensed. I guess I'll have to put in a reset button. Why does it matter to know how many food reward I still have inside the apparatus?

When you train an animal and you give them a food reward, you are not only rewarding the animal but also communicating that the have done a desired behavior. The absence of a food reward during early training sessions will make rewarding and chaining behavior difficult as you always want to reward an animal when they did the appropriate behavior. If not, that will confuse an animal and might make them not associate a desired behavior with food reward. However, because the sound of the conveyer belt is a bridge and trainers can hand the animals a treat, the absence food reward might not be that critical if a trainer offers a food reward right after the sound of a conveyer belt. I might be wrong though ...

I also included a haptic feedback on the phone so whenever I press dispense, I'll feel it. That way, I can focus on the animal while I make my phone app dispense a food reward. That feature worked great and I was able to keep my attention on the lemur without having to look down to make sure I have pressed the "dispense" button.

The craisins I use as food reward have started to stick on the cups because of the heat and humidity (it's sugary). The small grapes that I initially wanted to use are sometimes too big and would get stuck on the cups. Now, the craisins are also getting stuck on the cups. I'm thinking maybe I should use freeze dry fruits but I'm not sure they are as palatable and yummy for the lemurs as these sugary sweet rewards.

Tomorrow, I return and continue training the lemurs indoors. 

This really cute jumping spider decided to check me out as I wait for my shuttle to go back to my hotel. Hey there, lil' guy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bridge and Training

A "bridge" in animal training is a stimulus that bridge a correct response to a reinforcement (usually a food reward) and is almost often a vocal communication such as the sound of a clicker or praises (Good boy!). A bridge is usually an anticipation of something positive going to happen and bridging tells an animal that they did the desired behavior and a reward is on its way.

Most of what I did today was bridging and positively reinforcing my lemurs to do the behavior I want them to do. The bridge, in this instance, is the sound of a moving conveyer belt that dispenses a treat. When the lemur hears the mechanical sound of the conveyer belt, it acts as a bridge to tell them they did the right behavior and a food reward is on its way. All the lemurs that I worked with today were very cooperative. They ran right up to the apparatus and did a lot of explorative behaviors but almost immediately knows that the chute in the apparatus drops food reward because they were sitting near the chute (this might be a biased observation on my end). Hopefully, in time, they will associate the sound of the conveyer belt as the bridge.

Aside from doing training today, the trainers and me found a few issues that I need to work on with my apparatus. One of the most important thing was glare. We tried to train the lemurs outdoors and the glare made it impossible to see the tablet screen. I will be training the lemurs indoors tomorrow so hopefully the screen should be brighter (in theory it will). Some design changes were made to the phone app interface, including having a number countdown on how many food rewards were dispensed for easy rewinding, as well as incorporating haptic feedback whenever I press a button so I don't have to look down at the phone while miraculously also keeping an eye on the lemur.

Have I mentioned how unbearable this North Carolina heat is?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Apparatus, Assemble!

This beautiful mural greets you as you enters the Duke Lemur Center. Tonga Soa!
Today was exciting because I get to put something in practice after fussing around with the concept, prototype, and then the product for almost a year. I am, of course, talking about my apparatus that I built. If you have been following my posts, you'll know what I am talking about.

NOTE: If you are interested in learning more about my apparatus, I will be presenting a poster about it at ASP 2015 in Bend, Oregon. I usually have the poster up the same day or a day after so if you can't make it to ASP, please keep an eye on it in this blog.

I brought all the pieces of my apparatus to the research center and assembled them there. Took me about 30 minutes and I'm getting much more proficient judging from all the times I've dismantled and assemble the apparatus back again. Everything is in place. Nothing is broken. Everything works as intended. There were some hiccups, but then again, as I said in my previous post, no matter how much you try to test a products you will always run into some hiccups when you finally use it as intended.

  1. My USB wire doesn't seem to want to connect between an Android device to a Macbook. Still haven't figured out why this is happening but I figured out an alternative to route my data to where it needs to go.
  2. Some of the location has no WiFi connection so my apparatus cannot communicate to Google spreadsheet. No matter. I figured out how to work around that as well.
  3. My grapes are getting stuck on my conveyer belt cups. We ended up opting for craisins. It'll be smaller and the lemurs can eat it quick enough to focus and get back to the tests.

You know what? I'm too blessed to be stressed (that's actually what my mug says). As long as you are quick thinking, there is nothing you can't do.

My apparatus and me.
After assembling my apparatus, I did a walk through of all the enclosures where I will be doing my training and testing. Also got to meet most of my subjects (inside voice: squeeee! they are soooo cuuuuutteeee!!!) and figuring out what location is best to put my apparatus in.

Before I left, I signed a few waivers and one of them was about not posting any photos or videos before getting a release from the research center so, sorry y'all. No backstage photos. If I ever take any pictures and it is cleared by the research center then I will definitely post it here. If not, sorry. Rules are rules.

I return tomorrow to the research center to start my training. Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Journey to the South

Photo from DeviantArt
"Nothing in this world is difficult, but thinking makes it seem so. Where there is true will, there is always a way". - Cheng'en Wu, Journey to the West.

My arduous journey begins today as I head south to Durham, North Carolina to begin my research with the ruffed lemurs. Much like how the Monkey King had to abandon all of his monkey to learn more about the world,  I had to abandon my Monkey (and Serra, and Cloudy) to learn more about the ruffed lemurs. My parents and hubby sent me off at the airport. I was sad having to leave, but I'll be back in NYC in 2 weeks for the weekend so that softens the blow a little bit. I will miss my cats a lot in the mean time.

One of the most stressful thing for me (yet) was to pack my apparatus and hoping it will make it to Durham in one piece. I had to disassemble my apparatus and pack it in two parts: the shell and the mechanical parts inside. I packed my shell inside a large artist tote, wrapped with bubble wrap and hard cardboard. For the mechanical parts, I packed them inside a cardboard box and put it inside a luggage that's padded with clothes.

I'm happy to say that all my luggage made it to Durham, yes all 5 of them. I had checked 3 of my luggage and TIL that checked bag fee increases exponentially. I ended up paying $210 to check 3 of my bags. Oh well. Lesson learned.

I am most ecstatic when I got to my hotel room and opened up my luggage. Everything is in one piece! My acrylic pieces were not shattered! My mechanical parts are all intact! I did not lose anything. Woohoo!

Unboxing my acrylic pieces. Thank Darwin all the pieces are intact and not shattered.
I am settled comfortably in into my hotel room now. It's almost midnight [it already is after midnight]. The room is pretty comfortable but I hope I don't go stir crazy in here. Went to Walmart to get some groceries (grapes for the lemurs!) as well as some necessities.

Tomorrow is Sunday. Not sure what I am going to do. Probably take in what Durham has to offer. See you then!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thanks for touching my big black box

Prototypes are meant to be rigorously tested but sometimes you won't catch any problems until you have finish building your product. That is why it is also important to test a product before putting it to use. I have been building and testing the prototype to my apparatus for a good 6 months now. I had recently put together the finished product (the first one shattered but let's not stress about that). Before I bring it down to the Duke Lemur Center to test it on the lemurs, I enlisted a few willing human subjects to come over my apartment to test the apparatus. All in all, it went well. Although it's much easier to tell a human to do something than a lemur. I anticipate training these lemurs for at least 2 weeks before they have any idea what I want them to do. Thanks to those that came over and touch my big black box!
'Coz Ru, it's made from black acrylic.
It helped a lot to see the apparatus in action. Sometimes if you test your own product, there are some inherent biases that influence the way you see and evaluate something. Having someone else do the testing can give you a sense on how something appears to someone else, which is important, because eventually your product will be used by others people (or lemurs).

My buddy Harry the hamadryas also helped me test my apparatus. He is going to be my research buddy when I'm in Durham, North Carolina so you'll see a lot of him. It seems like he had no problem doing the task at all! Let's hope the lemurs won't have any problems as well.
Harry testing the structural integrity of the apparatus.

Harry testing the apparatus. He approves.
Well, I guess my apparatus is good to go! Again, thanks to those that dropped by and helped me run a few trials. Guess what? This apparatus actually can be taken apart and lay flat for easy transport. I plan on checking it as a luggage when I fly to Durham on Saturday so my first stress is to anticipate retrieving this apparatus in one piece. Y'all pray for me!

For those that are interested in this apparatus, I will be presenting a poster on it at ASP 2015 in Bend, Oregon. Looking forward to answer questions and chat about it.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

New Chapter

This time next week, I would have been in my hotel room in Durham, North Carolina getting ready for a new chapter in my academic and research life. I will be actually working hands on with primates instead of just observing them in zoos. This is going to be the first time I've ever left home to do research. While this not really considered "fieldwork", I am technically in the field ... but I get to go back to a nice extended stay hotel room with staff that caters to me. I will miss my husband and my cats dearly, and I only wish they could have come with me. But alas, sometimes you have to walk alone.

Photo from the Duke Lemur Center
But, let me back up just a bit ...

So, I will be doing some behavioral research at the Duke Lemur Center with ruffed lemurs (Varecia sp.) for my Master's thesis. I will be there on weekdays to train these lemurs to use my apparatus. Eventually, these lemurs would have known how to use the apparatus and testing phase begins. There is no telling when they'll be ready to move on to the testing phase, however, since these lemurs have never done the kinda stuff I want them to do so it might take a while. I'm optimistic that I can get this done in about 5 weeks, but who knows. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I will be blogging daily while I'm doing my research at the Duke Lemur Center. It's probably a good idea to keep a journal of what I did while I'm at the Duke Lemur Center but I think it'll be fun for y'all to follow along. Also because this is 2015 and I ain't about that LiveJournal life. Here are some, but not limited to, highlights of my adventure:

  • Witness the first time I have a nervous breakdown!

  • What will I do when I realizes that the nearest acceptable Asian food is more than an hour away?

  • It's been a month and these lemurs have yet to learn to use the apparatus. Watch me have another nervous breakdown.

  • Watch me post a selfie each day so you can see my outfits. I won't be packing a lot of clothes from NYC so watch me serve Walmart realness. Maybe I should start a hashtag for my selfies on Twitter. Maybe #PrancingPapioSelfie? ... I'll come back to this.

  • Be there when I have my aha! moments with the lemurs or my thesis ideas!

  • Join me as I explore Durham, North Carolina and the Research Triangle. Interesting sights, food and shopping. Yes, shopping. That's like totes important.

  • Get exclusive photos and information of my research before I debut them in conferences! Of course, you'd have to understand that there are poachers out there and they are very mean people. I can only share so much.

Photo from the Duke Lemur Center

So, I'd like to personally invite you to be a part of my journey. See you very soon!