May 29, 2013, by khyx2lyn

Life of an Intern – Investigating Orangutan’s Eye Movements

The exam period of May 2012 proved to be a period of a lot of stress for me. Part of it came from all the reading and studying I had to do for the upcoming exams – something I think nobody in their right mind genuinely enjoys. Another part of the stress came from thinking about what I was going to do with myself for the blank 4 months that was coming after the exams (i.e. summer holidays). However, during all this stress, I noticed that there were a few lecturers from the School of Psychology who had put up advertisements looking for interns to help them with their research over the summer. I only applied for the one with the most interesting sounding project to me– Dr Neil Mennie who was looking into orang-utan’s eye movements.

I sent in my application with only about 20% confidence that I would get the job. I didn’t bother getting a lot of face time with my lecturers over my first year, so I didn’t know any of them very well, including Dr Neil. However, much to my surprise, I got a very positive and friendly reply from Dr Neil telling me that he was impressed with my application, and that I was hired.

My internship required alternating between the National Zoo (Zoo Negara) a few times a week to collect data from Tsunami, the 8-year-old female orang-utan we were “experimenting” on. Our data came from a wireless eye tracker that Tsunami’s keeper named Sharul would put on her head. The eye tracker consisted of two cameras; one pointed at Tsunami’s eye, and another pointed outwards towards Tsunami’s surroundings. The videos from the two cameras would be synced in a software that calibrated Tsunami’s eye movements, and would pretty much show us where and what Tsunami was looking at. On the days I wasn’t at the zoo, I would be on campus analysing the data while getting a lot of coffee and Red Bulls from Seven Eleven to push me through all that data analysis.

All in all, the internship gave me a lot to think about and also a lot to learn. Interning with Dr Neil meant a lot of background reading. He was constantly giving me different types of research papers which he would never fail to discuss with me (or at least try to discuss with me because lots of the time, I didn’t fully understand the papers). Dr Neil would also get me to think of different tasks for Tsunami, and would have me come up with mini experiment proposals which proved to be very useful upon entering second year. From working both, on campus and at the zoo exposed me to different work environments which I had to learn to adapt to.

Although I would have liked to have had more time to properly sit at home and do absolutely nothing, I was and still am extremely grateful and proud that I got the internship. As a proven couch potato, the internship was quite a bit of hard work for me and I am proud that I spent those three months working. Although it wasn’t all fun and games and baby apes during the internship, I can look back when I’m an old, withered grandmother and tell my grandchildren that I once studied an orang-utan at the zoo, about how much I learnt and how much fun I had during that time.

Nadia Zulkifli    
(Year 2 Student in BSc (Hons) Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, UNMC)

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