Otter Research Gives Psychology Student Jump on PhD

Aspen Shirley ’21 was just 12 when she first discovered her interest in psychology.

She wandered into the science section of a bookstore “and with my own money, the first book I ever bought for myself was a neuropsychology book — and I still have it.”

The book may have been a bit complex, but she was hooked.

“I definitely didn’t understand most of what was going on, but it also led me to do more research on my own to try to understand more of what the book was talking about.”

She started her college career at Concordia University but when it closed, she transferred to Pacific University.

“Pacific University offered me a great deal and great scholarships based on my GPA,” she said. “That’s what brought me here, just their generosity and kindness for helping, not only me, but a ton of other students along the way during that time.”

These days, Shirley is doing a different kind of research, working alongside Pacific University Psychology Professor Heidi Island to study behavior differences between wild and captive North American river otters.

With Dr. Island, Shirley has done field work collecting samples from wild otters on Whidbey Island in Washington and sending them to the Oregon Zoo endocrinology lab. 

It’s research that has been done with other animals, but never river otters.

“The reason why we’re looking at river otters, or why any psychologist looks at any other animals, is because psychology is just the empirical study of behavior,” Shirley said. “There’s 53 subtopics or subfields you can go into. There’s a lot of diversity in the field of psychology.”

Dr. Island is a comparative behaviorist who launched her study of Whidbey Island’s otters in 2019 during her sabbatical. The work has focused on the choices the others make in where they hunt, what they eat, and when they’re active, compared to those in captivity at the Oregon Zoo, as well as what the wild otters’ behaviors indicate about the health of the ecosystem around them. The initial sabbatical work set up a five-year longitudinal study, which now involves undergraduate student researchers from Pacific as well.

Shirley says the hands-on research experience is a rare opportunity unique to Pacific.

“It really opens a great opportunity for PhD programs, which is what I’m trying to go into … getting to say you have done research experience and having it on your CV is a big time benefit,” Shirley said.

“I never thought I’d be given this opportunity, so I’m just incredibly grateful, and it’s all thanks to Pacific University and of course Dr. Heidi Island.”

Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021