SG: Hi, my name is Sarah Goodwin and today we are talking to Susan McConnell who is the Susan B. Ford Professor at Stanford University and studies developmental neurobiology, and she is also an avid nature and wildlife photographer. So, thank you for joining us today. SM: It’s my pleasure. Sarah, thank you. SG: And I’d thought I’d start off by just asking you a little bit about your scientific background, and how you got interested in science and what led you to pursue a career in basic research. SM: So, I’m a developmental neurobiologist at Stanford. I’ve had a lab there for 22 years. I was a graduate student at Harvard and a post-doc at Stanford. But, I think my journey into developmental neurobiology is really intrinsically connected with my interest in wildlife photography. So when I was a little kid I used to go out and watch animals as much as I could. And that included sitting for hours at a wood pile where there were big families of woodrats, and I would watch them, and I’d be fascinated by the social lives of these rodents. So when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I thought, “Oh, you know, I love horses. I love to ride.” I thought I’d be a horse trainer. But then I saw a National Geographic special on TV that featured Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees of Gombe in Tanzania. And there was this extraordinary view of… romantic view of this beautiful young woman who is spending her life in nature, studying our closest relatives, getting close to these animals, getting them to trust her, and seeing amazing things about their behavior that now we know inform us about our own origins and our similarities and differences to our closest genetic cousins. So, I was so inspired by seeing Jane Goodall that I wanted to be a scientist. That led me into initial forays into looking into animal behavior mostly in the laboratory, and that then led to an interest in the difference in behaviors that are innate versus learned. So, how is it that some animals are just born with the ability to exhibit very complex behaviors and other behaviors have to be learned steadily and progressively, being modeled? So, I thought about behavior and innate versus learned. What is that really talking about? It’s talking about the brain. It’s talking about neural circuits and how they get wired in. What kinds of circuitry are hardwired to enable the performance of these complex behaviors and how do circuits get modified? And then that ultimately led me to my interest now as a developmental neurobiologist in how those circuits form during development. So, it’s a long, but actually pretty linear progression from being fascinated by animal behavior to studying brain development in the lab. SG: So, you’ve always had an interest in animal behavior. What led you into the photography aspect of observing animal behavior? SM: There is a way of being present when you’re taking pictures that is extraordinarily thoughtful and engaged because as a photographer you’re not just responding to what you see, you’re really searching for how to communicate with an audience an idea, an emotion, a sense of what you’re seeing. Photography is a form of visual communication and searching for that message is interesting. For example, I was in the Makgadikgadi Pan of Botswana and had gone there specifically to photograph meerkats, these wonderful desert creatures that are extraordinarily social. And I went there because there was a very well known group of meerkats that were highly habituated to people and as a photographer, photographing animals that are habituated, which is different than trained, but habituated animals really let’s you get up close and personal with them. When I got to this site, what I first found was that new babies had just emerged from the den. So my first pictures were really focusing on the wonder of these new babies. And as the babies actually started to interact with their parents, I started to play around with light, back lighting, front lighting, the grouping of the animals, the behavior and so on. And so you don’t want to take the same picture over and over. You want to change your point of view and try to find a unique perspective. What happened then was really cool. A huge Marabou Stork, which is a predator of small animals like meerkats, landed and this whole group of meerkats that had been dispersed and feeding, gathered together for safety. And then I started to play with a set of images that explored the geometry of that gathering as they were all focused on a particular point in space. But I was still searching for what you can think of as an image that would really convey something about not only these animals and their behavior, but how it is that they survive in this environment. And it was at that point that I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got the wrong lens on my camera. I’ve been shooting them close, close, close and exploring their relationships and their geometry, but they’re exposed. They’re exposed next to a predator.” So I changed to a wide-angle lens. Got in front of the animals. The sun was setting. The light was beautiful. I had to put a flash on just to light them a little bit from the front to fill up their faces. And that then resulted in the image from that couple of hours with meerkats that I think of as an image that communicates not only about these animals, but their relationships and their vulnerability in the place where they live. SG: Do you think your approach to photography can almost be described as scientific? SM: Part of the art of photography is responding to light, and if you’re a wildlife photographer, to behavior and conceptualizing how it is to represent that moment through the camera. But photography is also highly technical art because the camera is a machine. So in order to understand how to translate what’s happening out there into the vision I have of how to communicate that, that I have in my mind. I need to understand enough basic optics and physics to put the right settings on the camera, to hit the right depth of field, to know whether I want a sharp image or a blurred image. What’s going to communicate the feeling that I want to transmit through this image. And also, there are properties of the sensor and how it detects light that determine if one will even try to take a picture under particular lighting or circumstances. So, photography is one of those fields where the intersection between art and science are very, very close. SG: So can you tell us a little bit about one of your most memorable experiences in the field? SM: I think for me, one of the most satisfying experiences and exciting experiences that I’ve had was nearly three weeks spent at a single water hole, one water hole in Namibia with Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell who is a researcher who’s been studying elephants for 25 years. I was given the assignment to shoot pictures of the story that Caitlin was writing about the social relationships between bull elephants. And largely our sense of male elephants is that they’re mostly solitary. And they might hang out with buddies at watering holes for a little while, but Caitlin had discovered that these male elephants formed very long term, hierarchical relationships that involve coalitions, and you know, like a boss and underlings who sort of carry out the boss’s orders and it’s very interesting and fascinating. By spending that period of time with Caitlin and her colleagues, I learned an enormous amount about elephant behavior. I was able to see things in the way that they interact with one another the way that they approach one another, sometimes with anxiety and sometimes with aggression. They can square off and have really interesting fights with one another. There’s also a very specific behavior that Caitlin and her colleagues had observed again and again where a subservient elephant puts his trunk to the mouth of a more dominant bull. It’s an appeasement gesture. It’s the same thing that a baby elephant would do to his mother. And I also got to observe not only the relationship between the bulls, but the arrivals of these large breeding herds of elephants as they come to the water hole. There’s chaos! There’s dust flying! And especially if I was in an underground bunker, very, very close to some of these elephants, they would get scent of me and then give these extraordinarily aggressive displays aimed at me. Thank goodness I was safe. So that was a privilege, to be able to get so close to elephants to see so much of their behavior that you wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have observed on my own without being around researchers. It gave me the ability to predict behavior accurately, too. I knew when I could just sit back and relax and watch the scene, and when I needed to grab both cameras and be ready because all chaos was going to break loose. SG: Could you tell us a little bit more about some of the places you’ve been to? SM: There are just so many extraordinary places on the planet, including in our own backyard that have amazing animals, behavior, experiences one can have with nature. I’m addicted to Africa. I’m going on my 15th trip there next month, which sounds like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the people who actually live there. I had a really remarkable opportunity to spend some time with mountain gorillas first in Uganda several years ago and then more recently in Rwanda. As extraordinary as it is to watch animals living, playing, fighting, nursing their babies, eating. All of those things are amazing. But for me the most emotional moment that I had in Rwanda was at a moment when a group of gorillas were very close to a stone fence that separated the Volcanoes National Park, a very small reserve where some of the last remaining mountain gorillas are protected, from neighboring areas, villages, that are cultivated farm land. And one by one, these gorillas went and sat on this stone fence looking out. And in the distance were some people from the local village looking back at the gorillas. To me, that sort of recognition by these animals that this was a boundary, and the way that they looked out at land that used to be theirs and yet is preserving them now, the local people and we as tourists, preserving them now, was an extraordinarily moving experience. And I think a picture like this one really captures that complex relationship that we have with the natural world right now. SG: Have your experiences as a nature photographer affected your life as a scientist? SM: My experiences as a photographer have had a lot of effects on my life as a scientist. I think most importantly it’s made me feel happy and whole. That there is something I feel passionate about. When things in the lab aren’t going well that I can explore, even in my own backyard, the elephant seals at Año Nuevo or the hummingbirds that frequent our literal backyards, or the burrowing owls that live around here, these teeny little owls that are just adorable. So it’s very easy actually to go quite close to home and to have one of these experiences that makes you feel rejuvenated and refreshed. SG: So as you became more passionate about nature and wildlife photography, how did you balance that with your career as a scientist? SM: Yeah, there are a lot of different passions that I think we scientists have. Photography being my example right now that can take a lot of time. And I think for me it was very important to realize that there are seasons in a career. There are times of one’s career, for example the time at which you’re first starting your lab, where you need to immerse yourself 24/7 in building your group, in getting your research off the ground and so these are not times when you’d want to take off for a month and photograph gorillas in Rwanda because you’re needed at home, and your career depends on that sort of real, deep investment of self in your science. And yet, as a lab matures, and as students become more self reliant, and the lab reaches a point where it can function for chunks of time without, for example me being there. So it’s always a juggling act but I think that once priorities shift, not only over a career, but even from month to month and from year to year, a time at which one’s students need you because they’ve got to get their papers out is not a time to abandon ship. And then there are other times during the year that are more flexible, and it’s easier to pay some attention at least to these other parts of life.