Jill Pruetz

The honor of membership into Sigma Xi spans disciplines and courses of research study.

Each month in the Sigma Xi Today section of American Scientist magazine, and also on our website, we will be highlighting a different "Fellow Companion"—asking them about their work and what the honor of induction into Sigma Xi has meant for their career.

Dr. Jill Pruetz, a leading primatologist and theJillPruetz Walvoord Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University, has studied the behaviors of nonhuman primates including chimpanzees, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, tamarins, and vervets in her fieldwork around the world. Pruetz's current research on the influence of ecology on primates and early human behavior has been funded by the National Geographic Society, where she is considered an Emerging Explorer, and the National Science Foundation.

Tell us about your educational background including your doctoral research, if applicable.

I received my Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I studied the socio-ecology of female patas monkeys and vervets over a two-year period in the savannas of the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya. That experience led me to continue my study of savanna primates.

Do you have a particular teacher or professor who inspired your love of science? Why?

In college, at Texas State University, Dr. David Glassman sparked my love of biological anthropology in general and primatology, specifically. Dr. Jim Garber introduced me to fieldwork, which I knew would be a big part of my career. I originally fell in love with anthropology as an undergraduate student.

What is the focus of your current research?

I study the behavioral ecology of chimpanzeesJillPruetz2 in a savanna environment in Senegal. I use these chimps as a model of sorts, in order to better understand early hominid behavior millions of years ago. I compare my study subjects, the Fongoli chimps, to those that live in forested habitats in order to assess which pressures affect apes most in savannas. Much of my research is also what you might term natural history studies, as apes have never before been habituated to the presence of human observers in a savanna.

Tell us about something we might see in our daily lives that directly correlates to your work.

Many aspects of human behavior are similar to other primates'. Although we should be careful about direct comparisons between humans and other primates, I do believe they can provide insight into our own behavior in certain circumstances.

Give us an example of how multi-disciplinary research directly contributed to your work.

I work with archaeologists and other biological anthropologists as well as parasitologists. By collaborating with other scientists, we are able to examine things like diet content via isotopic analyses, health via dental morphology and the natural parasite load.

What are your thoughts on the future of STEM education?

I am encouraged by the recent opportunities available to minorities and women, both underrepresented in the STEM fields.

Describe the patent/publishing experience—were there any bumps along the way for you?

I was lucky to be involved in publishing early on as student—at that time immediately following my work as an undergraduate student. In today's world, I would encourage students to become involved with publishing their work even earlier. It was somewhat difficult to adjust to writing scientifically after learning to write well for very different audiences for several years. I think many students have this same problem, and practice is a vital part of bettering oneself in this regard. I also highly recommend identifying a mentor to give you feedback.

What has the honor of induction into Sigma Xi meant to you?

I found it professionally rewarding to be accepted into Sigma Xi as a graduate student. Being honored for my accomplishments and publications at that time was very encouraging.

Has Sigma Xi helped further your career? If so, how?

Networking within my local chapter has allowed me to build a system of support with my fellow academics, as well as given me valuable leadership experience through my service on a committee. Learning from more experienced colleagues via the interdisciplinary nature of Sigma Xi was especially helpful when I first began my tenure-track position.

What books are you currently reading for pleasure?

I have a bad habit of sometimes not being able to finish the books I've started until a later date, so I often have several I'm reading at the same time. One of the books I'm currently reading is Fire: The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution by Frances Burton.

When you're not working on your research, what do you do in your free time?

Work on my research or read.

What's your favorite movie?


What is your favorite motto?

"Success isn't permanent and failure isn't fatal"—Coach Mike Ditka

What advice would you give a young researcher just starting out in your field?

Follow your passion, get experience and never give up!

Sigma Xi just celebrated its 125th year. What advances do you see in your field of research over the next 125 years?

I see the advances in my field of primatology following closely with the goals of conservation biology, since most primate species, including the apes I study, are currently endangered. Most field researchers will and should include aspects of conservation biology in their studies out of necessity as well as ethical responsibility.