Tim Landis '15: "I love the idea of gaining experience in many different academic
Landis is studying the creative responses in wild raccoons.
Randolph-Macon College student Tim Landis ’15 has always been fascinated
by psychology. This summer, he is following
his passion as he participates in R-MC’s Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship
(SURF) program. SURF offers students the opportunity
to conduct 10 weeks of full-time, original research during the summer months, under
the guidance of a faculty mentor.
Landis, a chemistry major (with a biochemistry
emphasis) and psychology minor, explains his project, titled “The Creative Act:
An Investigation of Creative Responses in Wild Raccoons (Procyon lotor).”
“When I met Psychology Professor Kelly Lambert during my freshman year, I was immediately
drawn to her work as a behavioral neuroscientist, in which she observes the behaviors
of lab rats,” says Landis. One of Lambert’s projects that piqued Landis’ interest
focuses on von Economo neurons, which have been found in a handful of species—higher
primates (including humans and apes), elephants, and cetaceans (dolphins and killer
“Professor Lambert hypothesized that raccoons might make the list as well if someone
bothered to look,” says Landis, who spent many hours in the lab last year in search
of these specialized brain cells. “After that preliminary work, she told me about
a unique population of raccoons near the new R-MC primate laboratory at Monkey Jungle
in Miami, Florida that are awake during the day, are fed dog food, and have no natural
predators. Outside of the lab, these are as ideal conditions as any scientist can
hope for. Professor Lambert and I concluded that this would make a perfect SURF
project.” Landis is studying the creative abilities and behaviors of this unique
population of raccoons.
“Many people have trouble raccoon-proofing their houses, which suggests that raccoons
are very good at finding creative solutions to those obstacles,” he says. “We want
to find out just how good. Most scientific definitions of creativity include novelty
and usefulness, both within the social context. For example, using a screwdriver
would be extraordinary creativity for a lizard, but for humans, it’s normal. For
these raccoons, figuring out how to use a lock in order to get to food would be
a creative response. We’ll be studying if the raccoons learn how to undo locks and
latches simply by watching each other and what their responses are to new objects
in the environment.”
The DuMond Conservancy at Monkey Jungle
Monkey Jungle is home to nearly 400 primates, most running free on a 30-acre reserve.
It is one of the few protected habitats for endangered primates in the United States.
R-MC just established a satellite primate laboratory at the neighboring DuMond Conservancy
to investigate primates in semi-natural habitats. Landis describes a typical day
“I arrive at Monkey Jungle at eight o’clock each morning,” he says. “I begin by
analyzing video footage taken the previous day. Then I make my way to Cauley Square
down the road, where the raccoons are, and I do general observations until noon.”
What follows is “creativity testing”—Landis, camcorder in hand, records the raccoons’
behavior. Later in the day, he analyzes the videos and writes down his observations.
The Power of SURF
Landis strives to be a well-rounded student and feels certain that SURF is the perfect
opportunity to fulfill that goal.
“Even though I’m a chemistry major, I love the idea of gaining experience in
many different academic areas,” he says. “Since I started my SURF project,
I’ve read dozens of in-depth articles, including creativity studies, animal behavioral
studies, and neuroscience articles, and I’ve learned more than I could have imagined.
Reading research at its source really puts into perspective how many hours go into
filling a single textbook page with information. That feeling doubled when I actually
started to do my own research.”
Lambert, the Joan and Macon Brock Professor of Psychology, serves as Landis’ SURF
mentor; however, he is also receiving guidance from Professor Massimo Bardi, a new
faculty member in the R-MC Psychology Department who will be teaching courses such
as Primatology, Hormones and Behavior and Psychopharmacology in the upcoming academic
year. Lambert and Landis keep in touch via email when Lambert is not on the DuMond
“She always has helpful advice, including new ways of looking at problems, and she
is always positive,” says Landis. “She is very involved but still gives her students
the freedom to tackle any obstacles in the way they think is best.”
“I was impressed with Tim’s scientific curiosity from the first moment he wandered
in my office,” says Lambert. “I immediately invited him to begin research in the
lab and he did a wonderful job examining brain tissue. It’s not surprising that,
after many discussions about behavioral neuroscience research throughout the academic
year, he was excited about a project exploring the roots of curiosity. It’s the
perfect project for Tim!”
“I’m hoping to attend
medical school, though I don’t know where I want to go just yet,” says Landis
of his post-R-MC plans. “I’ve always loved science, and I enjoy helping other people.
I feel that a career as a physician would be an excellent opportunity to combine
the two. And being able to put SURF on my résumé for medical school is a bonus.”
The SURF program was established in 1995 through a generous gift made by Ben '64
and Peggy Schapiro. The Schapiros continue to support this program, which promotes
scholarly undergraduate research by R-MC students in all disciplines.