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Into the Wild

USC College doctoral student Rob O’Malley studies chimpanzees in Tanzania through a partnership with a pioneering primatologist.


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Into the Wild

USC Dornsife doctoral student Rob O’Malley studies chimpanzees in Tanzania through a partnership with a pioneering primatologist.

Video by Mira Zimet

Rob O'Malley sat hunched in the middle of an African jungle made famous by pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall. As he furtively watched the object of his research - a group of chimpanzees - O'Malley heard a cough.

O'Malley found he was also being observed — by another chimp.

“It was exciting and humbling,” O’Malley said. “They are allowing us to participate in their world. When I am there sitting with the chimps, I find it incredible that this is my job.”

O’Malley, a doctoral candidate in USC College’s integrative and evolutionary biology program, is the first graduate student to take advantage of the university’s evolving relationship with Goodall. Nearly every year a USC graduate student will be heading to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, where Goodall performed her groundbreaking research, to study the 150 chimpanzees who live there in the wild.

Since 1991 USC has been the home of the Jane Goodall Research Center. And every year Goodall, a distinguished adjunct professor of anthropology and occupational science, gives standing-room-only lectures.

But as negotiations were under way to continue the mutually beneficial alliance, USC College Executive Vice Dean Michael Quick asked Craig Stanford, co-director of the Goodall Research Center, to think big.

When Stanford, professor of anthropology and biological sciences in USC College, joined the university in 1991, he had helped close the deal that was already under way to bring Goodall into the Trojan Family.

Stanford’s own relationship with Goodall began in 1988 while he was still a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. He was doing research in Bangladesh and wrote to her asking to study at her famous reserve.

It was, Stanford felt, “a letter in a bottle.” Yet Stanford caught Goodall’s attention. And soon he had become the first researcher in nearly 15 years to study at Gombe, which had suffered through political instability and a lack of funding. He observed the hunting habits of chimps, then believed to be mainly vegetarian. Stanford proved otherwise.

So when Quick asked last year, “What would you love to have, what would you want?” Stanford knew the answer.

He asked for the biggest perk he could think of — the chance for USC students to study at Gombe.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” Stanford said. “You can get so close that you think you are looking into the eyes of another person. And you are there trying to get inside the head of a wild animal.”

Stanford figures if you add up all his excursions, he’s spent nearly eight years in remote places. Now he wants to give his graduate students the same experience.

“We are not just talking. We here have an opportunity to make a difference doing research with our students,” Quick said.

O’Malley, already a veteran of the Costa Rican rain forests, said he chose USC in part because of its relationship with Goodall.

“In the back of my mind, I knew this was a possibility,” said O’Malley, who did his undergraduate studies at Miami University of Ohio, followed by a master’s degree at the University of Alberta.

O’Malley spent three months in Gombe hoping to learn more about the eating habits of wild chimpanzees — specifically why different groups choose, or even prefer, certain types of termites to eat.

“There are different ideas flowing around and it may have to do with nutritional payoff,” O’Malley said. “It appears that taste preferences evolved. Humans prefer sugar and fat, like ice cream and butter. Our ancestors needed that to survive.”

He watched the chimps, collected insect samples, performed nutritional analyses and filmed. In the end, he also became dehydrated and got malaria.

In a few weeks, O’Malley heads back: this time for five months. He can’t wait.

“If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, USC will back you up,” Stanford said.