By Erin Hecht, Interviewer Extraordinaire
Originally published February 2008.
Erin Hecht: What do you study?
Dr. Lisa Parr: I study comparative social cognition, particularly face and facial expression processing, in monkeys and apes, and to a lesser extent, children with autism.
E: How did you get into that? Why do you find it so interesting?
L: From very early in my career, I was interested in whether nonhuman primates gained information about emotion from facial expressions. If Darwin was right, and facial expressions in animals are very similar to humans, then they should convey something about emotion. Because nonhuman primates are so closely related to humans, and they have such interesting and elaborate facial expression repertoires, it was interesting for me to try and understand what these signals communicate.
E: What do you think has been your biggest contribution or discovery so far?
L: My area of research is pretty exclusive, at least from the perspective that it involves chimpanzees, so almost everything we find makes a big contribution to our understanding not only of chimpanzees as a species, but also human uniqueness. I think the most interesting general finding has been that chimpanzees and monkeys process faces quite differently. Chimpanzees show many of the same cognitive specializations as humans, such as expertise effects, the face inversion effect, and reliance on certain configural patterns. Monkeys don’t show these same patterns and we’re currently trying to understand what features they do use and why humans and chimpanzees may have evolved a more dedicated face recognition system at both a neural and behavioral level.
E: What do you do when you aren’t playing with chimps and monkeys?
L: Nothing super special. I love to cook, and to do pottery, hang out with friends, and I have a not so- closeted addition to MMA (mixed martial arts).
E: If you had wound up something other than a neuroscientist, what would it have been?
L: That’s easy, a professional fishing guide.
E: Do you have any tips for grad school survival?
L: Don’t take yourself too seriously and try and have fun.
E: What are your worst/most embarrassing & best/most fun moments in your career so far?
L: Hmmm, fortunately there are not very many embarrassing moments, or at least I have permanently blocked them from my memory. Lots of fun moments, meeting E.O. Wilson, being invited to fancy conferences, getting my first honorarium, traveling the world. But hanging out with the chimps for the last 15 years has probably been the most rewarding. They are good colleagues.
E: Favorite drink, cartoon, band, part of the brain?
L: Drink? Hmmm…You can’t go wrong with a good California wine or cup of java depending on the time of day. Cartoon – probably Calvin & Hobbes. Band – David Bowie. Part of the brain – that’d have to be the fusiform face area.
E: What would be the most important scientific discovery that could be made in the world right now?
L: Wow, there are so many things to learn. Anything with generating stem cells in ways so they could be used more widely for research, and a more complete understanding of the epigenetics of autism. Oh yeah, and figuring out a way to save our closest-living relatives from extinction!