Understanding animals and making science more accessible

Faculty of Science
Students by the Rideau canal with STEM complex in the background
Why does my dog chase squirrels? Is my cat scared of the vacuum cleaner? You’ve likely looked at your pet and wondered what it was thinking. Scientists study animal behaviour and cognition in efforts to understand how animals process information and make decisions.

Isabel Rojas-Ferrer's PhD research, under the supervision of the late Professor Julie Morand-Ferron, investigated how animals acquire, process, and use information from their environment to make decisions. Isabel, who defended her PhD in 2021, worked primarily with birds. In the first part of her thesis, she focused on animal personality, which refers to consistent differences in a behaviour between individuals that are maintained across context (e.g., fear response, novelty seeking, etc.). Isabel introduced wild-caught black-capped chickadees from various parts of Ottawa to new environments and studied their behaviour. She discovered that some birds moved through their environment faster and gained information more quickly than others.

Isabel Rojas-Ferrer

The second part of her thesis focused on how adult bird behaviour and decision-making was impacted by exposure to varying information sources (i.e., no information, 1 source of information, 2 sources of information) during juvenile development. Though Isabel found that quantity of information exposure did not seem to affect personality, she noticed that adult birds in the group exposed to less information during development learned new things more quickly than those provided with more information. Such research broadens our understanding of species in different habitats and how experience with information impacts learning processes.

Isabel developed a passion for science communication following her participation in the 2019 Soapbox Science Ottawa event, a non-profit initiative that encourages women and gender diverse scientists within science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields to engage with the public. In 2021, Isabel became a fellow of the Yale Ciencia Academy (YCA), a year-long internship collaboration between Yale University and Ciencia Puerto Rico that supports diverse young scientists through career development and training opportunities. More recently, she participated in an initiative with the STEM Advocacy Institute centered on combating animal misinformation on social media. Inspired by the success of her peers, Isabel aims to include more scientific communication outreach in her future.

A well-rounded individual, Isabel practices many hobbies including yoga, Muay Thai, and rock climbing. She is a strong advocate for mental health, which led her YCA peers to nickname her “the therapy queen”. She believes that working at one’s own pace is important to maintain mental health, a viewpoint that was shared by her PhD supervisor, the late Prof. Julie Morand-Ferron.

Prof. Morand-Ferron encouraged her students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills so they could become independent scientists. Sadly, Prof. Morand-Ferron passed away in 2022, though her legacy lives on through her research discoveries and talented students.

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