Potential hire for Natural Sciences Department presents on how studying animals helps understand human behavior

Written by: 
Leslie Owusu

As part of an interview process to be hired in the BYU-Hawaii Department of Natural Sciences, Biologist Spencer Ingley presented his research about behavioral variation within a species and what causes them. Students said they enjoyed how he connected his research to the tendencies of human behavior.

Ingley, a postdoctorate fellow at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University, named his presentation “Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: Lessons from spiders and fishes on the origins and value of diversity,” the first half stemming from a phrase in Job 12:7. He highlighted two areas that are fascinating to him. “The first area focuses on behavioral variation that is found within a species or population. You can think of this as 'personality', or 'temperament.’ We've known for a very long time that humans vary in their personality/temperament, which in a sense weaves a thread of consistency in behavior across their lives.”

He said an example of this is how some individuals have a tendency to be more aggressive than others, which affects how they interact with people in a variety of contexts. “Scientists have recently taken note that wild animals possess something that is similar to 'personality' or 'temperament.' Anyone who has ever owned a dog or cat could attest to this. Some dogs are shy and asocial; others are excitable, bold, and social. It turns out that similar patterns are found throughout the animal kingdom, from worms to walruses [and] fish to flamingos. You name it.”

Ingley said he is interested in understanding why these personalities exist and what effect they have on how animals interact with their environment. “Some of the work I presented showed that diverse groups of social spiders (i.e., spider groups that have individuals with a diversity of personalities), are better at adapting to changing or more extreme environmental conditions.”

The second area he discussed was what causes diversity and variation between species. He said, “This work focuses on the fundamental question of how the diversity of life came to be. From a Gospel standpoint, we know very little about this process. We believe God created all things, but the scriptures provide us little detail regarding the process He used. I'm interested in studying how biodiversity has changed and formed over time. I use science to study the process by which biodiversity has arisen to, in a sense, arrive at a better understanding of how this might have occurred.” 

Ingley showed photos, videos, diagrams, and graphics throughout his presentation. Laura Hinze, a junior in marine biology from Washington, attended and said, “Not only was it super informative, but it was really entertaining and engaging. During most of these presentations, you’re bombarded with too much information but I didn’t feel that way.”

At the end, Ingley took the time to thank his family as well as the people and funding that have helped him along the way. He closed by answering questions from the audience.

Most of the questions came from faculty members themselves. Ingley said, “I was particularly excited to interact with some of the faculty about some of my future research plans. I think they were generally excited about the research I presented and interested in talking more about what I might do if I were fortunate enough to end up at BYUH. One aspect that I think got a lot of attention was my plan to use a novel 'boat drone' to monitor reefs in Hawaii and throughout the Pacific.”

Hinze said she wanted to attend this presentation out of all the other presentations from potential hires because the title intrigued her. “I am planning to go to all of them… I’d like to know who my potential teachers could be.”

Ingley said part of his visit included interviewing for a faculty position in the Natural Sciences Department. He said, “As part of the interview process, I was flown out to visit Laie and the campus, meet faculty members in the department, and give a research and teaching presentation.”

The presentation was meant to be a scholarly presentation on some of his past research and future research plans, Ingley said. He said he was invited by the search committee in charge of screening candidates for the position.

The presentation, according to Ingley, went pretty well. “I love talking about my research, and I love thinking about future research possibilities. I am particularly excited about some projects that I could conduct at BYUH with the students and faculty here. Hawaii is a beautiful place with fascinating biodiversity and it would be exciting for me to be based here full-time. I think the talk was well received.”

Melina Harding, a freshman in marine biology and Hawaiian studies from Utah, said a lot of good information was presented. “Our teacher emailed us letting us know that this was going on today. It was kind of last minute, and I didn’t know if I would be able to make it. I really wanted to come and see what I could learn.”

Harding said the presentation was fast-paced and a little hard to follow, but she enjoyed it overall. “When I go into something, it is nice to know how I can apply it to me. I found it interesting with the spiders when they are in the more diverse colonies that they survived better since they were together. I think this applies to us as students, coworkers, and friends - that we are stronger together.”

Hinze said, “I wondered what he would talk about, I wasn’t expecting spiders…I like how he also talked about sea snakes and fish and that he didn’t just focus on one thing. I enjoy the topic of personality and how it affects how species survive.”

Hinze said she liked how Ingley explained the scientific process of how he found the results. She said, “They usually share the results but not how they found it. I like how he discussed the culture of the spiders. I made the connection to how we are as humans. My favorite part was when he talked about how it related to humanity in the end.”

Ingley said the goal of his presentation was to present his past research and future research plans, in part because he loves presenting his research and in part because of his desire to work at BYUH. Ingley received his Ph.D. from BYU at Provo and his bachelors from the University of Florida.

Future presentations will be held from 2:00pm to 3:00pm in McKay 127. They are: “All in the family: A phylogenetic study of deep-sea bamboo corals” by Espirt Saucier, Ph.D. from University of Louisiana at Lafayette, on Tuesday, Mar. 28; and “Genetic and genomic analysis of salt tolerant plants” by David Jarvis, Ph.D. from King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, April 4.

Date Published: 
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Last Edited: 
Tuesday, March 21, 2017