Q&A with Todd Freeberg, Ph.D., Animal Behaviorist

OnlinePsychologyDegrees.com speaks with Dr. Todd Freeberg, an associate professor at University of Tennessee - Knoxville who studies the vocal communication of animals, specifically birds. His research includes the development and evolution of signaling, including the social context of bird songs and other systems of vocal communication. He also studies the genetic, ecological and social influences on those systems.

Below, Dr. Freeberg discusses his work and what qualities are necessary to be successful in this field.

Q: What is your current position and what do you do?

I'm an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Tennessee. I'm in the biological psychology research area. In terms of what I do - it's an academic combination of research, teaching and service.

Q: How is animal behavioral psychology different from what people think of when they think of psychology?

I think when most people think of psychology, they think of the human mind and human behavior. With non-human animal research, you can often test ideas, in terms of experimental manipulation, that might not be possible to test with humans.

Q: Can you give an example of how that might be used in your field?

It's not the kind of work I do, but a big component of animal behavior research is behavioral neuroscience - looking at the neural or neurophysiological basis of behavior.

Q: What first got you interested in this type of work?

I stumbled upon a class in animal behavior. From the first minute, I realized that's what I wanted to do. It was basically taking a class from a professor that got me hooked.

Q: What kind of training or education is important for getting involved in animal behavioral psychology?

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to wind up at a research university or college, you pretty much need to get a Ph.D. There are some other career directions you could take like working at a zoo or going into private practice and dealing with pets and behavioral problems. There, you wouldn't necessarily need a Ph.D., but I would guess you would need a bachelor's, and a master's degree probably wouldn't hurt.

Q: What are your specific research interests?

I'm interested in social behavior and communication and am trying to understand the development and function of different communicative signals, primarily vocal communication.

Q: What are some benefits of challenges of working with animals instead of people?

Obviously, you can't ask a non-human how they think or feel. You can't have them fill out a questionnaire. So that can be a challenge - trying to come up with experimental methods or observational methods that somehow get the animals to basically tell you what you're interested in and what's important.

From the experimental angle, though, you can sometimes get more experimental control. The other benefit would be just learning more about the natural world and maybe finding out something that's going to be useful for conservation issues. Some of the basic research in experimental psychology has agricultural applications, for example.

Q: What is an example of a finding you made as the result of your studies?

The study I'm still most excited about is a test of a hypothesis about the complexity of vocal communication being influenced by the complexity of the social group the individual is in. What I did was test it experimentally. I did a simple outdoor cage study in which I set up groups that differed in the number of individuals and just recorded and analyzed their calls. I found that individuals in larger groups were using more complex signals to communicate compared with individuals in smaller groups.

Q: What kinds of job opportunities are out there for people working in animal behavioral psychology?

There's the university/college academic setting - teaching and research. Outside of that, a former master's student of mine has her own company where she gives people advice if they've got a dog or cat with problematic behavior. In applied animal behavior, there are potentially positions in industry, zoos, agriculture or conservation.

Q: What would you say is the best part of your job?

I love teaching; I love doing research, but I think the best part about an academic job for me is the level of creativity.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Only having 24 hours in your day and not being able to keep up with everything you need to keep up with - the balance of research, teaching and service.

Q: What kinds of traits are important for someone interested in getting into animal behavior?

What comes to mind first and foremost is the notion of a real, intrinsic motivation and an inner drive to do research.

Q: Any other advice for aspiring animal behavior researchers?

As early as possible - and this is actually what I tell academic advisees - if you're at all interested in going to graduate school, get research experience as soon as you possibly can. It's not for everybody.

It's no longer surprising for a prospective graduate student to have research experience; it's expected that they'll have a lot of it as undergraduates.