Emily Levy studies how the physical and social environments that baboons experience affect their physiology and life outcomes. The Massachusetts native, who works under advisor Susan Alberts (PhD), is in the final year of her Biology PhD and will defend her thesis later this Spring.

Though Duke’s in-person classes have been delayed until next week, I caught up with Levy over Zoom. The wall of her home office displays a fascinating Russian map of Chicago from the cold war era that shows bridges with their weight capacity. Levy tells me that she had no idea how her husband, who is from Evanston, found the map.

Emily Levy, an almost-PhD in Duke Biology

Levy’s research stems from the Amboseli Baboon Research Project – a nearly 50-year-old, ongoing study of wild baboons in Kenya. Duke’s Alberts has been studying these baboons for over 35 years and is a renowned primatologist involved with the project. Alberts’ lab collaborates with field researchers in Kenya to receive data and samples that are imperative to much of their work.

“Something that I really appreciate about Susan and the way she runs the lab is that she starts first-year grad students on a starter project,” Levy told me. Following a discussion about Levy’s interests, this project led to her first work on dominance rank, stress levels, and what this means physiologically for baboons. Levy also “poked around” at how scientists study dominance rank and found that the methods used for assessing rank “matter a lot.”

In her more recent project, Levy is trying to figure out what early life environments mean for adulthood in baboons. “So, we know that baboons that experience a really harsh early life, if they survive to adulthood, have really, really reduced lifespans as adults – like half as long – as baboons that had no adverse events,” Levy said.

“I’m focusing on two hypotheses to get at what might be happening under the skin that could have something to do with longer term effects on health and mortality.” One hypothesis is that a tough early life environment, especially nutritional stress, could stunt baboon growth and impinge adult activities like foraging or maintaining dominance rank. The other hypothesis proposes that early life adversity disrupts immune development, leading to an immune system that is either always inflamed or produces an overpowering inflammatory response when a baboon does get sick.

The second hypothesis is one that has been supported by human research, but Levy’s preliminary results “are the exact opposite.” This highlights one facet of the importance of her research: Its implications and parallels to human health and mortality. But Levy says her research is also “cool because it’s just cool” and appreciates what her work may add to basic science beyond human application.

In her journey to Duke, Levy said that she “tried a few ways of studying” animals before arriving at the work she conducts now.  Levy, who really liked animals, enjoyed time outside, and was “hooked on biology” in high school, began her undergraduate career at Williams College with this in mind. “In college, I took biology and neuroscience and then took animal behavior my sophomore year and was like Oooo, this is cool!,” Levy exclaimed with a big smile on her face, “And it felt sort of light-bulby.”

Along the journey to her PhD, Levy studied plants and insect pollinators and spent a few weeks in Madagascar in a tent filled with fleas. Though Levy said that these experiences of field work became “one of my favorite things about my job,” they also helped shape her trajectory as a scientist as she figured out which model systems and research questions “did and did not spark her joy.”

It was during her undergraduate thesis assessing social behavior in rats that she felt a strong “click” for studying social behavior in animals. Taking a couple years to work in a clinical research lab that conducted work on autism in humans, Levy enjoyed working on research to aid in special needs people. “But pretty quickly,” Levy said, “I was like, Alright, I don’t want to study humans for my whole life.”

“I’d basically been crossing things off my list up until this point,” Levy continued, “I now knew I wanted to study social animal behavior in non-human animals.” In her year away from research, Levy worked as an outdoor educator in Wyoming while she applied to grad school with this study plan in mind. Her time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming narrowed her interests even more, pushing her towards behavioral ecology because of her observation of an amazing, unbroken natural ecosystem.

Levy says she ultimately ended up at Duke because “the Baboon Project is amazing,” “Susan Alberts is amazing,” and “the Duke Biology Department is really wonderful.”

While Levy enjoys working with Alberts and mentoring undergraduates, as well as using grant writing as a “fun way to develop really exciting ideas and hypotheses,” she also shared some of her frustrations with me. “Science is very slow — often, not always — and a project from start to finish takes a long time. And the publication process is so long. I struggle with that pace sometimes” Additionally, as someone who was raised to never take herself too seriously, Levy also said that she has felt a lot of pressure in grad school to take herself more seriously than she should as part of academic culture.

Levy loves teaching and her hope is to become a faculty member at a small liberal arts college or undergraduate institution following a post-doc, for which she is currently in the application process. Through this future work, Levy aspires to “bring undergrads through the scientific process.”

In her time away from the lab and science, Emily is an avid baker. “One of my goals in grad school has been to acknowledge and own what I am good at, and I know I am good at baking,” Levy said with a grin. Chocolate chip cookies are her specialty.

If she could give any aspiring science PhDs a word of advice, Levy offered that you should have fun and “pay attention to the non-intellectual, as well as intellectual, things that you enjoy most.” As exemplified by her path to figuring out what exactly it was in science that inspired her, Levy says not to worry as much about figuring out where you are going, and when, but reaping the lessons and insights of the experiences along the way.

Post by Cydney Livingston, Class of 2022