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Senior wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Senior Chris Krupenye, a 2011 NSF Graduate Research Fellow, plays with young chimpanzees during his internship at the Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon.
Senior Chris Krupenye, a 2011 NSF Graduate Research Fellow, plays with young chimpanzees during his internship at the Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon.

Senior Chris Krupenye is fascinated by chimpanzees, and it turns out the feeling is mutual. "You walk into the enclosure and everybody wants attention," Krupenye says of the infant chimpanzees at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon, where he completed an internship. "They all want you to tickle them and pick them up and swing them around. And if you are not paying attention, one of them will slap you on the back." He adds, "Chimpanzee babies are like mischievous kids that are way too strong for their size."

Krupenye, a biological sciences major and 2010 Goldwater Scholar, is about to join an elite team of scientists at Duke University who study hominoid psychology to draw conclusions about human and ape cognitive evolution with particular emphasis on social problem-solving, cooperation and theory of mind. He has been accepted to a Ph.D. program in evolutionary anthropology and will work with Professor Brian Hare as part of the Hominoid Psychology Research Group.

"I've always been fascinated by animals, and I'm captivated by apes," Krupenye said. "They are such complex animals, and there is something truly enchanting about their exceptional intellect." Krupenye's research will be supported in part by a 2011 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will provide him with a $30,000 research stipend each year for up to three years.

Krupenye is the College's second consecutive winner of this very competitive award, which this year was also granted to three Connecticut College alumni, Yalidy Matos '09, Justine Miller '07 and Justin Richard '03, for graduate studies at their current institutions.

"These awards bring national recognition to Connecticut College and reflect the excellence of science education here," Connecticut College President Leo I. Higdon Jr. said in an email announcing the awards to the campus community. As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Google founder Sergey Brin.

Krupenye will begin his research shortly after Commencement. This summer, he will spend 10 weeks studying the problem-solving abilities of chimpanzees and bonobos at sanctuaries in the Congo Basin. "We will be comparing the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos to that of humans," he said. "The intent is to understand divergent evolution in terms of psychology. We want to know, when we shared an ancestor, what was that ancestor's mind like? How did its brain work?"

For Krupenye, who hopes to become a professor, conducting hominoid research as part of a Ph.D. program is both a dream come true and a logical next step. At Connecticut College, Krupenye completed two semesters of research with Biology Professor Stephen Loomis, interned at the Comparative Cognition Lab at Yale University and at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon, studied abroad in Madagascar, and completed cognitive field studies with lemurs in Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park and with chimpanzees in Uganda's Budongo Forest Reserve.

A scholar in the College's Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, he is also completing a minor in French and a senior honors thesis on the perceptions of facial communication by rhesus monkeys.

"Chris has taken full advantage of the liberal arts and sciences at Connecticut College, and I couldn't be more proud of all that he has accomplished here," Higdon said. Krupenye said that Connecticut College's liberal arts curriculum allowed him to pursue both a rigorous science education and a personal interest in French. Now, he will be making good use of both.

"My ability to speak French was integral to my acceptance at Duke," Krupenye said. "No one speaks English in the Congo, where we conduct our research, so Dr. Hare doesn't take anyone who can't speak French." Krupenye adds that he wouldn't be where he is today without the support of his professors and the generous financial aid offered by Connecticut College. "It is incredible to finally have the means, through the NSF and Duke, to ask and answer the questions that have for so long inspired my passions," he said. "And it all began at Connecticut College. The commitment Conn made to me through financial aid has afforded me an education far beyond that which my family could have ever hoped to offer and prepared me for a dynamic future."

April 18, 2011