Exploring Animal Behavior through Expressive Storytelling with Caroline Hu, Artist and Evolutionary Neuroscientist in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology


Jennifer Berglund, Caroline Hu


Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with Caroline Hu, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard, who studies the evolution of animal behavior in Hopi Hoekstra's lab. She's also an artist, specifically a cartoonist, who will be leading a workshop that she hopes will help our visitors connect to our museum specimens on a deeper, more emotional level. Here she is. Caroline Hu, welcome to the show.


Caroline Hu 01:10

Thank you, Jennie. Happy to be here.


Jennifer Berglund 01:16

You're a scientist who's always had an interest in art. Describe how you developed those interests, and how you figured out how to merge the two.


Caroline Hu 01:26

It started when I was very young. It was not necessarily voluntary, even, it was sort of my way of exploring the world where I was especially enamored with animals and plants, just other life forms I encountered as a kid and I would just come back home from being in the backyard or something and draw them. So it was always my way of sort of synthesizing what knowledge I gathered throughout the day, and as a scientist now, it's something that I still do, but rather than just walk around my backyard, I'm looking through a microscope, let's say. I'm still using, especially, like, visuals to bring together my observations, and I would say that a lot of scientists who maybe don't consider themselves visual artists or cartoonists also do this, like a slide deck, a scientific poster is in many ways, just juxtaposed images and words, and that's just what a comic is.


Jennifer Berglund 02:22

So you make comics.


Caroline Hu 02:24

So I make comics about scientific research. I also make comics that are inspired by science. So for example, what if we lived a life where we had a similar life cycle, say to another organism, like the immortal jellyfish say. Every time we got injured, we simply regressed back to an earlier state and could be reborn in a way. I also make comics about the process of becoming a scientist. I would say graduate school is quite the journey. The postdoc is also quite a journey. And that's something that I just wanted to share with people about how much you grow, not just professionally, but also usually personally, because a lot of the time you are in your 20s or 30s, and you're going through like a really formative time still.


Jennifer Berglund 03:12

So it's sort of the more emotional side of your education.


Caroline Hu 03:18

Yes, absolutely. There's a lot of trials and tribulations. Failing a lot for sure, also, having the courage to take on things that could be really high risk, high reward, and also forming important relationships in your life between, say, a student and their mentor, but also between students even. That's some, you make some of your friends for life in grad school, I find, because I think sometimes you go through, you know, really high highs and also really low lows together. Often it kind of brings you together that way.


Jennifer Berglund 03:47

I think that's really interesting because a lot of people that aren't familiar with that process don't really understand sort of the emotional toll that it takes.


Caroline Hu 03:56

Like, as an undergrad studying biology, I thought that grad school was simply just more homework, like. So you do like six more years of homework, and you get another degree. That's what I honestly thought. It really took me working in a lab for the first time and like observing researchers to really understand what they were doing. And no, you pretty much never do homework again. You never take a test again.


Jennifer Berglund 04:21

Which sounds nice, but it's actually horrible.


Caroline Hu 04:24

Well, yeah, there's no, you don't know what the right answer is, right? That's what you're trying to figure out. So it's it's both freeing and in some ways, but yeah, also much harder.


Jennifer Berglund 04:36

Both of your parents are engineers. How do you think they influenced you as a scientist?


Caroline Hu 04:43

They definitely really value education. So, they were both immigrants here in the 80s, and because they were in STEM fields, that's why they were able to come to the United States and start a life here together. So, definitely the push for education was there. I would say also, we were just generally raised always with a lot of like analysis of self and family. So, a lot of families have the height wall, right? And then also a lot of always discussions like, oh, whose teeth do you have? Whose hands do you have? There was a lot of that. And I would say, that kind of also probably factored into why some of my favorite toys when I was a kid. I had a little rock collection. I had a little seashell collection, and I would really just sit there and, like, group them. When you're a little kid, you think, like, "oh, the big seashell, that's a parent seashell." No little ones are the baby seashells. But often I would be grouping them by like shape, size, color, things like that. And so I wonder if the way that my parents often, like, talked about myself, and as I developed kind of I factored into how I was trying to then process and organize the world and see if there are any sort of relationships, patterns or rules.


Jennifer Berglund 06:02

So these days, you study behavioral neuroscience in animals, but you took what you call, and I love this, a backdoor to the brain in the development of those interests. Can you describe what you mean by that?


Caroline Hu 06:16

Sure. So, I was generally interested in biology, and I think I was one of those students who just kind of loved whatever I happened to stumble upon. So I wish I could say it was more deeply thought out than this, but I really just signed up for a class on endocrinology, the study of hormones, and hormones are important for pretty much helping shape every aspect of your body--how much it grows, as it matures, how it starts to look and function. And so I sign up for this class, and of course, I was like, "I love it." And I really, in some ways, think I probably would have felt the same way if it was any other ology. I love it. And I was really fortunate in that the professor of the class was like, "hey, you seem to really love this, so would you want to work in my lab?" And this was Professor Robert Denver at the University of Michigan, and his lab works on metamorphosis, which is just so fascinating, and particularly metamorphosis in frogs. So, you see this aquatic larval stage, this tadpole, sprouts legs, its entire gut remodels because now it's ready to eat other types of food. And the brain also really transforms. So I was interested at the time in how, say, hormones could help trigger and, like, usher in this really dramatic process. And so I thought I was doing hormones. But what I really learned as I spent more time in the lab is that the brain is just the master of all of this in that it integrates information from the environment and also integrates information from the rest of the body, you know, so like, as a little tadpole, how many energy resources have I built? Am I ready? Am I ready? And so I ended up in that way thinking I'm studying hormones, but next thing you know, I'm looking at brains, and so that's why I would say I never set out to become a evolutionary neuroscientist. It just kind of happened.


Jennifer Berglund 08:21

So for your PhD, you studied a very different animal from tadpoles. You studied cichlid fish. How did you end up going from fish to mice?


Caroline Hu 08:29

So sixlets are a very large group of bony fish. And we talked about them sometimes as if they are like aquatic Darwin's finches, because there are really like hundreds 1000s of species. And they are so specialized in many different ways for different types of diets. So there's predatory ones, there's ones that just scrape algae off of rocks. And so people are really interested in them because of how they've evolved into many different forms. In the lab that I did my PhD in, which was Russ Fernauld's lab at Stanford, we had one species of the cichlid, and what I really was drawn to them by is just that they're extremely charismatic, I gotta say, and for people who are curious what a cichlid might look like, if you've ever seen a tilapia, that's technically a cichlid, it's like the bigger, kind of (sorry, tilapia, people) but like a little bigger, duller cousin. The cichlids we were studying in the lab. That species that we were studying, the males, especially, are very brightly colored, and entire communities of these cichlids are sort of just trapped in the most intense high school situation, but forever. And so everything is about social status, like everything, and a male fish, as it transitions from like a lower social status to a higher one, immediately he becomes so much more colorful, these cool bars come down on his face that make him look, I don't know, kind of kind of rugged, kind of imposing. And behavior just absolutely transforms. So we were really interested in how changes in the environment could trigger changes in behavior, while previously for my master's, it's more like how could changes in, say, your diet and your body then trigger a big change in the brain and behavior. So it's all sort of about change, I guess.


Jennifer Berglund 10:20

And so what did you find in your research there?


Caroline Hu 10:23

So what I found was that there are particular groups of cells in the brain that seem to be particularly active when the male realizes a change in his social environment. So we were coming in at night. Fish sleep. Fish sleep at night. And I would come in with night vision goggles and a net. I must have looked, you know, super, super cool. So I would go into the fish facility while fish were sleeping, and I would purposefully remove one member of the social group, and then when the lights came on, you know, the sun rose for the fish, and they all wake up, they had to reassess and find the new social order. And so yeah, my PhD was about looking at which cells in the brain seem to be really responsible for this.


Jennifer Berglund 11:14

You're now in your postdoc, and you're working with a very different animal. You're working with mice, and you're studying their burrowing behaviors. So what interested you in that, and what evolutionary aspects of their brains are looking at?


Caroline Hu 11:33

I guess the unifying themes with my research would be, again, this is change in the brain and change in behavior, but rather than happening within an individual's lifetime, it's over many generations in that I'm comparing now differences in behavior between different species. It's just something that I really started getting interested in when I was working on the cichlids, because, often I would have to compare when I was, say, writing a paper, I would have to compare what I was finding in cichlids to other animals because I wanted to always give context, and I wasn't just like, I'm not just interested in like in just cichlids, I'm interested in brains generally. This is like a model for studying social behavior, and so that's what really drew me to Hopi Hoekstra's group because she does have in the lab multiple species of wild mice, and these wild mice hail from different habitats in North America, and seem to have specialized in their behavior, depending on where they naturally are from. So I was very interested in the system, and in particular, for burrowing, what I like about burrowing is that one, it is a behavior for which we can get a trace of the behavior. A burrow is left behind, right? And so what we do in the lab, and people have done this in the field, too, is that after you gently evict the mouse, you can fill the burrow with foam, like the same type of foam that you use to, say, insulate a window, and it will completely capture the shape and size of what the animal did. So, I really liked the fact that we had this this trace from both the wild and then we could capture in the lab as well, and also that we had some idea as to why these burrows were different. I think sometimes we study things in labs where, okay, animal a and animal B are different, but we might not actually know what was the selective pressures actually like driving this difference? Does it really matter to the animal and its survival? But for the borough's because of work that we've done in the field, we understand that for some of the species, having that, say, a longer burrow, it really helps buffer that tiny animal. They're like 12 grams, the size of the chicken egg. It really helps buffer them from all the harshness that is the wild, and so that was really powerful to me to have, like, examples of how nature has, like, sculpted these animals to be different, and to now be able to compare them together. And so for burrowing behavior, I found that burrowing, they perform different limb movements to actually borrow. This is in contrast to, say, some other big burrowers out there who might, say, chomp their way through the ground. These wild mice, deer mice, they use these different limb movements, and I'm what I'm finding is that different types of deer mice make different burrow shapes. They use the same limb movements, but they use them in slightly different ways, so it's just sort of like variations on a theme, and they also spend different amounts of just time. How much time they spend. And so this is kind of guiding us to say look at areas in the brain that have a role to play in how movements are sequenced together, how movements are repeated, say, when an animal is, say, pushing and pushing and pushing sand. And then also, someday, this is a little more tricky, trying to understand how different animals actually have different levels of innate motivation to do things.


Jennifer Berglund 15:02

You're working with our education department right now at the museum to develop a workshop that teaches visitors both young and old to learn by observation, just like you do in the lab, or sort of like you do in the lab. So explain your idea for this and what you hope to accomplish.


Caroline Hu 15:22

So my idea for this is to help workshop attendees to first engage with museum specimens, actually just look at them, really just look at them, and do it and hopefully a way where I will guide, but I really want people just to follow whatever intrigues them. And so I think for every workshop, I wanted to be focused on, say, a specific group of animals, so mammals for one workshop, amphibians for another, and just provide specimens. They will be curated in some ways, I would say, just to show like the diversity of what we have at the museum, also to help, hopefully, stimulate some questions in people's minds. And after attendees make those observations, the second goal is to get them to then try to communicate whatever they have observed to anybody else. Really, it's up to them what their audience would be. I think, within science communication, it's stressed over and over again the importance of storytelling, and also the importance of connection, and so what I'm hoping is that the attendees themselves, who they are, will help and also influence who will connect to whatever they make, and for the workshop, the making will be, I would say, keep that as a low bar, you can make it as complex as you want, but also you can collage, you can take photos. There's not going to be gatekeeping based off of skill level, that's my hope. And my hope is that people will be able to make short zines that then can be shared with others both virtually, or be put somewhere in the museum itself as interpretive material if it really does a great job showcasing a certain specimen.


Jennifer Berglund 17:09

What's a zine?


Caroline Hu 17:10

Zines are typically short, so I'm talking like eight pages, sometimes very informal, and also typically self-published work. And so, there's a zine for everything. They're really common in terms of, like, for people who are publishing work because they are fans of something, or for people who are in a particular niche subculture, they will make zines. And also, they're a fantastic way for people telling personal stories around here in the Cambridge-Somerville and also greater Boston area, there are, well, pre COVID times, of course, there were comics, but also zine festivals that you could attend. And it was always really fantastic to see all sorts of creators sharing a lot of just their lived experience, their thoughts, their feelings through these zines because they could put it on paper, and, you know, go to FedEx Kinkos and make 20 copies, say. So for example, for me, being someone who is like, say, first generation with immigrant parents, I could walk through and look at people's tables and see someone who made a zine about that experience, and be like, "me too!" I find them as a really great medium for just that sort of connection because it is so intimate, you know, somebody actually sat there and just like, worked on these eight pages, and they don't need to be polished whatsoever. You can really, like, feel the artist, the creator, like, in the work.


Jennifer Berglund 18:40

So how would you envision someone creating a zine about their observations of museum specimens?


Caroline Hu 18:48

I think that I will give people prompts. I really would encourage people to make the work as personal as they want, or as, like, formally sort of more educational as they want, so it can be a deep dive about one specific species. It can be a exploration of different, say, mammals that all, okay, I'm a little biased here, they all burrow. Many different animals burrow--there's marsupial moles. There's multiple types of moles, for example. So I guess what I'm trying to say, and they look remarkably similar even though they're so distantly related. What are those things that bind them together? What are those things that, say, still let you tell them apart? It could also be a zine about why a particular species, say, speaks to you. I know frogs are having a moment right now. But yeah, if there's this particular species that really resonates with you, like why is that, and I would absolutely welcome attendees to compare and contrast their own lives with, say, the noble sloth. So that's the kind of work that I would hopefully see people joyfully creating.


Jennifer Berglund 20:00

So as an artist, you value something that scientists typically do everything in their power to stifle their work, which is emotion. Why do you think emotion is a useful tool in communicating science? And how do you employ it in your work?


Caroline Hu 20:19

I think that emotion, it's, it's the reason why I do it. And I think it would be, in some ways, I think that's just the honest story, at least my honest story is that so many aspects of science do really elicit emotional responses from me, and I think that's why sometimes it's so significant to me in terms of what it means. So some of it's just wonder and awe, just like observing some of the things that we see in the lab, how quickly animals can respond, how dramatically they so. Sometimes it's just wonder and awe. There's also just the emotion of the struggle too where I think for a good story, in some ways, you kind of need that, like, is that gonna happen? You know, are we gonna have a good ending, a bad ending, a meh ending? And that happens all the time and research to where you feel like, "wow, did I just waste four years of my life?" Like, well, I really hope that hasn't happened to many people, but I think that thought does occur, and so when it comes to telling the tale of scientific findings, I find if you were to iron or scrub that out, man, I think the story loses a lot, personally. And I think that emotion is also, for the reader, it can be a real way that helps them relate, and helps it stick in their brain uf a story actually elicits emotion in your audience,


Jennifer Berglund 21:45

Do you think it's a problem in science that emotion has been completely scrubbed away?


Caroline Hu 21:51

Well, sometimes because I think that it could play into scientists deceiving themselves into thinking that they are truly objective, say, when really, there's so much behind what questions you choose to ask, how you choose to ask it, who gets to ask it. Like, there's so much behind the choices of scientists. I think also, people are constantly, I think, trying to find that right balance, because I agree that you don't want to completely emotionally manipulate clickbait people into engaging with science, but when it comes to topics that say, aren't super bright and shiny, for example, public health, climate change, there is definitely more to it. I think that just makes anything that's like of concern, just like more real if you can show, like, the reason why I get up every day and do this is because I really care about x, or I'm really, like, frustrated. I think that that helps make the science and the scientists behind it just more relatable.


Jennifer Berglund 22:54

So I think you're saying that taking emotion out of science creates a problem in science communication, and that people relate to a story, they really latch on to things where there's an emotional connection to it, and so it's sort of, in a way, alienates a general audience from science to not have that aspect of emotion in there. Is that what you're saying?


Caroline Hu 23:20

Yes, I would say yes, yes.


Jennifer Berglund 23:24

What do you hope your attendees come away with the experience feeling?


Caroline Hu 23:33

I hope that they come away with the feeling that they made a discovery for themselves. It may not be new to science, but my hope is that it will be new to them, and I hope that they feel like they brought something into this world that will hopefully connect them with, say, a reader. I talk about these conventions where people come and bring their work, and yeah, I think that a lot of the time, like, a big part of the reward is to see that somebody else connects with you, and so that's what I'm hoping is that people are going to come out of it with something that they're proud of, that only they could have made, nd that is something that they will want to share.


Jennifer Berglund 24:16

Caroline Hu thank you so much for being here. This has been great.


Caroline Hu 24:20

Thanks Jennie. It's great talking to you.


Jennifer Berglund 24:30

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Caroline Hu and the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department for their wisdom and expertise. Stay tuned for Caroline's workshop once we reopen. And thanks so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!