Our new series highlights the work of different ESLR society members. Today, we hear from Michael Chimento, a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, about his research.

Hello! I’m a second year PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, working in the Aplin Lab of Cognitive and Cultural Ecology. I use captive great tits (Parus major) as a model system to explore questions related to cultural evolution of efficiency and complexity. I am especially curious how demographic conditions, such as population size and turnover, may affect cultural outcomes. Tied up in this study are behavioral ecology questions related to individual variation in cognition, especially payoff evaluation and behavioral policy decisions. Great tits are a useful system for these kinds of questions, since they socially learn novel foraging behaviors and forage in fission-fusion mixed-species flocks during the hard winter months. My captive experiments use automated data capture for collecting identity and behavioral information without disturbing the birds. Luckily, I enjoy programming in Python, and work with my lab mates to develop custom software solutions. Additionally, my MSc thesis at the University of Edinburgh used an agent-based model to test hypotheses related to network position and language evolution, and I now use these skills to construct ABMs for hypothesis verification.

My journey in academia didn’t follow the traditional path, and I never expected to end up doing a PhD involving fieldwork with birds in a biology department. I mention this in case there is a reader who wants to pursue higher education, but feels like they’re not a good fit because they have been out of school for too long, or studied the “wrong” thing. My work experience outside of academia gave me perspective on what a privilege it is to get paid to work on things that you want to work on, which has served as motivational fodder for tough times during the PhD. Further, if your interests have changed since your undergrad years, it isn’t a problem if you approach learning with a growth mindset, and are willing to put in the work self-studying!

In fact, my bachelor’s education was a humanities degree in politics, with a focus on international relations and conflict. Admittedly not the happiest topics, but growing up through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I wanted to understand how and why the world was organized the way it was, and what motivated violent behavior at large scales. After my undergrad, I had no desire to stay in academia. I spent the first half of my twenties working, and made a short career of teaching English as a foreign language. While teaching, I often wondered how my students were learning and processing language, and why there was so much individual variation in learning strategies and outcomes. I wanted to seriously study this, so I made a risky decision to quit my job to complete an MSc in the evolution of language and cognition at the Centre for Language Evolution in Edinburgh. The risk paid off: it was a fantastic education and introduced me to the broader field of cultural evolution. I became very interested in convergent evolution of social learning and culture across species, and that led me to my current position. I’ve not only enjoyed my very non-linear, interdisciplinary education, but it’s proven valuable when approaching the topics I now focus on. And looking back to my undergrad, the CE framework provides an empirical, dispassionate tool to study political systems — a breath of fresh air after having been exposed to often polemic, rhetorical international relations literature. Ultimately, I hope that by studying and better understanding the basic mechanisms of culture in other animals, we can find clearer insight into our own, often confusing human behavior.