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Professor Ambrin Masood studies animal cognition

BILLINGS, AUGUST 22, 2014 - Studies in animal cognition, student-led research, and engagement with the Billings community mark Ambrin Masood’s efforts to create real-world benefits for students and the city surrounding RMC.

In fall 2013, Masood took her Community Psychology class across the city to learn from and work with community social service organizations. Masood, an assistant professor of psychology since 2012, arranged field trips to support coursework on treatment of issues such as alcoholism, sexual assault, and teen pregnancy.

As they study social work interventions in the Yellowstone valley, students begin to recognize similarities in behaviors among populations. Eventually, psychology majors can research their own hypotheses about situational, developmental, or genetic responses to stimuli and stressors.

Animal models of behavior may help them. To that end, Masood supports an ethology [animal cognition] research opportunity on campus that may help students to demonstrate rational thought processes in an exceptional bird.

Shaka Zulu, a young African grey parrot, lives at home among Masood’s family and pets, but he spends many days working in Masood’s avian cognition lab in Alden Hall. As a very young parrot, Shaka has a lot to learn. Mature African grey parrots may have the problem-solving skills of a 5-year-old. Irene Pepperberg, lecturer at Harvard University, worked for decades with her African grey, Alex, who recognized 150 words. Reviewers judged that Alex could offer original verbal answers to questions.

In several different classes, students propose research to conduct with Shaka. Experiments have run in spring 2014 with students from Masood’s Behavior Management and 400-level Directed Research classes. In the meantime, Shaka Zulu is receiving plenty of appropriate enrichment from young scholars. Sky Gabel is “a brilliant student,” said Masood. In February, Gabel was teaching Shaka to recognize a verbal instruction to turn around on her perch.

“We are hoping to add experimental focus to our Cognitive Psychology course in Fall 2014,” Masood said.

Masood’s research students also coordinate efforts with other campus programs. “Aviation is a natural fit with psychology,” said Dan Hargrove, director of aviation. His curriculum takes cues from academic psychology, because personal predilections may control outcomes in the cockpit. In spring 2014, aviation student Alisha Herron combined Myers-Briggs personality inventories with data from scores of simulated crises in RMC cockpit simulator training. Her research explored whether pilots’ cockpit response to specific situations is more correlated to instruction and training or to personality.

“Ambrin has had a very strong influence on my recent academic development – she challenges me to think outside the box and demands my very best and knows when I'm not giving it. She holds me to high standards which pushes me to do my best work,” Herron said.

For her senior research with Masood, Gillian Williams Burden researched human subjects’ decisions under stress. Williams Burden said, “When I first came to Rocky, I thought I knew what I was going to do with my life after school, but when circumstances changed, I ended up feeling lost and not sure what to do in my academic career or a profession. Ambrin helped me find my way back toward a goal, a true dream that I love and have a passion for perusing, and that is research.”

For two years Williams Burden did research studying under Masood. Her interests vary from risk-taking behaviors and depression, to tattoos and stereotypes in the workplace. “The greatest thing about Ambrin is that she is so supportive,” she said. “She listens to all my crazy ideas and if she didn't, I don't think I would be as invested and determined to go into research. She is one that I will always want to talk to even after my time here at Rocky, because she always been there for me.”

“When I first met Ambrin, I felt intimidated … as if I would not become close to her. But later on in the year … she became one of my best friends at this school. I was able to feel more comfortable knowing that I could tell my professor things. She genuinely cares about her students, if you care about her and about how much she puts into her job.”

At Rocky Mountain College, students and faculty become partners in research and education, building a solid foundation for any career – from the lab to the cockpit.