Life Lessons From Research

by Lisa Barrett

Research projects are often difficult and require much training and preparation– from conceiving of a study or experiment, to conducting the necessary assays and measurements, to analyzing and disseminating results. These projects are also extremely rewarding, as I learned firsthand this past summer conducting research in collaboration with Smithsonian’s National  Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo. My study focuses on differences in personality and problem-solving ability among individual Asian elephants.


My research assistants at the National Zoo conduct observations during a behavioral trial with the elephants.

I have learned a lot from my graduate school career, both academically and outside of the classroom. I am grateful for the diverse animal research experiences I’ve had thus far. This summer, for example, I drove across the country by myself, oversaw several research assistants I interviewed and hand-picked, navigated new cities, worked alongside awesome elephant keepers– all in pursuit of my dissertation on personality and problem solving in Asian elephants. Not only did I learn more about elephants and their behavior this summer, but I also learned a few things about myself and about life in general:

1.You can’t always be in control. I quickly learned not to expect a certain outcome while conducting research with animals. You can have hypotheses and prepare for plans A, B, and C, but ultimately you cannot predict how your project will go. When I present a puzzle box to an elephant, she may solve it, destroy it, or ignore it completely. Research can take you in directions you didn’t initially expect–and that’s the point!

And this relinquishing of control-freak tendencies forces you to live in the moment, because you can only plan so much; if something goes awry, you just need to make quick decisions (literally in the moment). This is an entire different skill than I am used to, as I often obsess over pro/con lists and discuss what-ifs ad nauseam before making any decision. But now I can transfer some of my fast-acting, zoo-research persona to non-research, real-life situations.


Having a bonfire in 100-degree weather was not our favorite research day, but it made for a great bonding experience with my research assistants at the Oklahoma City Zoo!

2. Patience: You can’t set up an appointment with an animal subject. They’ll come to your research study site or your experiment if they want to. When they want to. And maybe you saw them three observation periods in a row but now suddenly they’re gone (as is your data point!). Maybe your research has been delayed by weather. These sorts of situations have taught me to take such an opportunity to work on other aspects of my project (“when life gives you lemons” approach). For example, my research team often partook in “coffee shop days” where we did data entry or video analysis (and enjoyed a coffee shop’s air conditioning and beverages in 100-degree weather) instead of carrying out more observations with elephants.


Elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo. From left to right: Kandula, Achara (from behind), Chandra, Asha


3. Communication: Even if you work by yourself on a project, you will interact with someone else–an advisor, a peer, a funding agency–at some point. You will at least present your findings or discuss your work with a colleague or potential collaborator. My summer experience allowed me to hone my communication skills with people outside of my specific field. I had the opportunity to train undergraduate students to help me conduct my research and analyze results, share my research goals and make a plan to achieve them with zookeepers, and explain to the public what we were doing with tripods and clipboards at the elephant habitats. I realized what my strengths and weaknesses are in being clear and concise and easily understood, and I look forward to working on communication skills however my career ultimately manifests itself.


Conducting video-recorded observations of elephant behavior made up a large portion of our research day.

4. Act with humility and appreciation: Your dissertation project (or your non-research “baby” equivalent) may not be the greatest thing ever conceived to everyone you meet. It may not be everyone’s very top priority. I worked with zookeepers to make sure my research was not intruding on their day-to-day routines with the elephants, and I tried to remember to act extremely appreciative of their help. I constantly remind myself to thank those helping me carry out my project, from advisors to research assistants to supportive friends and family. This translates into a friendly, positive outlook on life that reminds me to be grateful and not pessimistic.

Similarly, I am very fortunate to work with an endangered species; Asian elephants might not be around in 20-50 years. I try to find time throughout busy research days to quietly reflect on my appreciation of my study species, the work I am trying to do to help conserve it, and how lucky I am to be in my position.  Such quiet moments of appreciation and joy were integral in reinvigorating my spirit on long days or when I was questioning my research, and I look forward to fostering an appreciative perspective in my day-to-day work.



I had the opportunity to meet two-year-old Achara and 69-year-old Ambika this summer. I also received a finger painting from Chandra!


My research team enjoyed quiet days at the zoo, when we could concentrate on just watching elephants do what they do.

One comment

  • Lisa, I really enjoyed this article. I especially liked point 4 about humility and appreciation. It sounds like you had a fantastic summer!

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