Sunday, August 7, 2016

In Honor of Dr. Louis Herman (Special Guest Writer: Susie Walker)

Susie is not only an incredible coworker and tremendously kind person, she is basically like a celebrity in my eyes.  Why?  Because she got to work with the dolphins and researchers who first sparked my passion for understanding the minds of animals.   

Thank you, Dr. Herman.  You have inspired so many people to think about animals (humans included) in a way that unites us all.  You were a very, very special soul.
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Just a few days ago, the marine mammal field lost an incredible man and accomplished scientist. Dr. Louis Herman, Professor Emeritus from the psychology department of the University of Hawaii, pioneered the scientific study of dolphin cognition and communication, as well as humpback whale biology and behavior in Hawaiian waters. His work changed the way we think about cetaceans, and he contributed volumes to what we know about the animals with whom many of us work so closely today.


Lou Herman meant so very much to many people, and certainly to me as I worked closely with him as a member of his team for eleven years. I wanted to share a little about him and honor him through my dear co-worker Cat Rust’s blog, and she graciously allowed me to be a guest author in order to do so.


Writing this post was exceptionally difficult. How could I possibly find the right words to describe just how incredible Lou was? Or just how much he contributed to the world’s knowledge of dolphins and humpback whales? How could I put into words what he taught us, and how he inspired and continues to inspire so many?


Let me first give a brief history of Lou’s career. Lou founded the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory (KBMML) in 1970. He sought to create a learning environment for dolphins that allowed their intellect to blossom. With a unique long-term program of education, he believed the dolphins in his care could reveal their cognitive and communicative abilities.

Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory

When he began his work, Lou thought about whales and dolphins differently than many, believing them to be highly intelligent. Lou’s goals were certainly ambitious. For over three decades, Lou and his team worked to better understand the cognitive, behavioral, and sensory capabilities of the bottlenose dolphins living at KBMML. Groundbreaking discoveries with these dolphins included abilities for language comprehension, vocal and behavioral imitation, "imaging" of objects through echolocation, interpretation of television displays and scenes, understanding of human pointing and gaze cues, and evidence of self-awareness.


In 1975, Lou branched out and began studying the humpback whales found in Hawaiian waters in the winter. This became an annual project, and over a period of more than three decades, Lou and his KBMML colleagues discovered valuable information on humpback whale distribution, demographics, social behavior, reproductive strategies, habitat use, communication, and song. Knowledge in these areas helped in developing regulations for protecting endangered humpback whales in Hawaii.

Studying Hawaiian humpback whales

Over the years, Lou and his team at KBMML published over 160 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, theses, and dissertations on their findings. This firmly established KBMML as a world leader in the field of marine mammal science. KBMML was also featured in many television documentaries, IMAX films, magazine and newspaper articles, and books.


I first learned about Lou and KBMML in 1994 while participating in my first internship at the Dolphin Research Center. Vicki Beaver, one of many talented staff members there, did a presentation on dolphin intelligence, which naturally included information on Lou’s work. I was fortunately in attendance and was transfixed by what she had to say.



When I returned home, I rushed to my college library and read as much as I could about Dr. Louis Herman and KBMML. As I pored over journal articles, I learned about so many clever and interesting studies that resulted in fascinating insights into dolphin intelligence. Of these, one in particular really stood out to me. This was the work on language comprehension.


Some of you may be familiar with this work. For those of you who aren’t, I feel compelled to share the basics of this important research. I hope it fascinates you as it did me all those years ago.


The language work with the dolphins went through a few iterations, but ultimately resulted in teaching an artificial sign language to the dolphins. This was a language designed by the researchers and was not related to human sign language. Initially, two female dolphins, Akeakamai (“lover of wisdom” in Hawaiian) and Phoenix learned this language.

Phoenix and Akeakamai
In this artificial language, hand signals represented a variety of objects, actions, and modifiers. There was a particular grammar to the language. For example, two word sentences were in the form of OBJECT + ACTION. The sentence, SURFBOARD + OVER, asked the dolphin to swim to the surfboard and jump over it.


Modifiers could be added to these simpler sentences as well. Sentences of this nature took the form of MODIFIER + OBJECT + ACTION. The sentence, LEFT + PIPE + MOUTH, asked the dolphin to swim to the pipe on her left (of two pipes available) and open her mouth next to it.


The more complicated sentences asking the dolphins to follow instructions involving multiple objects had a reverse sentence structure. These were in the form, DESTINATION OBJECT + TRANSPORT OBJECT + ACTION. For example, BASKET + BALL + IN asked the dolphin to locate the ball and place it inside the basket. The grammar was designed this way so the dolphin had to watch the entire sentence before she could perform any of it. This was key so that the dolphins couldn’t simply learn to chain behaviors. It was important to Lou to strongly demonstrate the ability of the dolphins to comprehend the components of language.


The dolphins could also report on the presence or absence of named objects in their habitat. For this, there were two paddles on the edge of the pool, a YES paddle and a NO paddle. The researchers could ask the dolphin a question with the sentence, OBJECT + QUESTION. For example, WATER + QUESTION asked the dolphin, “Is there a stream of water in your pool?” The dolphin then responded by pressing either the YES paddle or the NO paddle.

Akeakamai pressing the NO paddle 

Akeakamai pressing the YES paddle


So what did this work demonstrate? First, it showed the dolphins capable of learning a grammar. This is a key component of human language. It also demonstrated that dolphins understood syntax, or the idea that if you change the order of words in a sentence, it affects the meaning. For example, HOOP + PERSON + FETCH (bring the person to the hoop) was different than PERSON + HOOP + FETCH (bring the hoop to the person).


It also demonstrated that the dolphins were capable of understanding the semantics of the language, or that the hand gestures served as symbols representing the actual objects. In the same way that I can type the word, “apple”, and you immediately know what that is, the dolphins saw the hand signs as symbolic representations of the objects.


All of these findings sparked significant worldwide attention when they were first published in 1984. At that time, language comprehension was something only demonstrated in humans and possibly some great apes. Lou and his team were certainly well on their way to changing the way people viewed cetaceans, and I was beyond inspired and wanted to find a way to get involved.

Elele and Hiapo

The following year, I applied for and was accepted into KBMML’s dolphin internship program. I traveled to the lab for my six-month internship in August of 1995.


Arriving at KBMML was a dream come true. And the facility was beautiful. KBMML was located oceanside, nestled between scenic Ala Moana Beach Park and the Kewalo Basin Small Boat Harbor. Inside was the dolphin habitat, which consisted of two large circular pools connected by a channel. Also onsite were two offices, a conference room, and two elevated decks (or lanai) that served as observation towers. The observation towers allowed for excellent views of the dolphin habitats as well as the beach park and the ocean. Diamond Head crater sat spectacularly in view to the East.

Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory



On my first day, I was led inside by intern coordinator Krista, and straight up to the observation deck to watch a session with the dolphins. I was in awe. Here were the accomplished dolphins I read about in so many scientific papers! Akeakamai, Phoenix, Hiapo, and Elele. I couldn’t wait to meet them and assist with the amazing research.


After the session, with happy tears in my eyes, I went to the offices and met Lou for the first time. He was welcoming and kind. He introduced me to graduate student Robert Uyeyama, who would be my mentor for the internship. Robert explained that he was working on language research with Elele. He was further breaking down her language into more specific actions, and explained that I would be helping him on this project. I was blown away.

Graduate student (now PhD) Robert Uyeyama

The next day, I had the chance to watch Akeakamai do the language research. This is a moment I will never forget as long as I live. Seeing it on paper was one thing. But seeing clever Ake (ah-Kay, as she was affectionately called) carrying out her sentences with confidence was breathtaking. Ake’s trainer for this session was Dr. Adam Pack, Lou’s Research Coordinator and KBMML’s Assistant Director. Watching him give the signs and seeing Ake carry out the instructions contained within the sentences was an incredible experience.

Dr. Adam Pack


Working with Lou, Adam, Robert, and the team was a life changing experience. Upon completion of my internship, I returned home to finish my junior year of college. The summer before my senior year, I returned to the amazing Dolphin Research Center, which also held a special place in my heart, for a second internship there.


I graduated with a B.A. in Psychology in June of 1997, and decided to return to KBMML to volunteer in hopes that I could find a way in there. Luckily, I did! Lou welcomed me as a member of his staff, where I remained for more than ten years, until the end of 2007. My responsibilities included training and caring for the four resident dolphins, creating interactive educational programs for Hawaii’s school children and community groups, and assisting with the research.

Ake meets Hawaii's keiki (children)


One of my favorite moments at the lab was the first day Lou allowed me to sign Ake’s sentences during her language research. I distinctly remember Lou coaching me in the specifics of each of the motions, and making corrections that would help make the words more clear for Ake. He was particular about this as Ake was his dear, star pupil. Standing in front of my beloved Ake and doing language research with her for the first time was a particularly emotional moment for me. Though I probably did it hundreds of times after that, each time was always very special.

PAY ATTENTION

RIGHT
HOOP
SPIT

Forming relationships with Lou’s highly educated dolphins was such an honor. Each of the dolphins holds a special place in my heart, though the one who taught me the most and touched me most profoundly was Akeakamai. She taught me so much about her kind, and about being the best trainer I could be. She influenced me and inspired me each day in countless ways.


My dear friend Akeakamai

Equally as important as the dolphins were the incredible team of people Lou attracted to KBMML throughout the years. KBMML was a special workplace for countless researchers, graduate students, staff members, interns, and volunteers. Under Lou’s tutelage, many of these talented people went on to illustrious careers of their own in marine mammal science, in veterinary medicine, or in animal care and training.

KBMML team, 1998


Sadly, KBMML and the dolphins are gone now, but the spirit of this special place lives on through the scientific papers, documentaries, and stories. What they taught us now guides generations of new researchers throughout the world to continue learning about dolphin cognition and communication.

Phoenix and Akeakamai

Almost four years ago, I returned to the marine mammal field. I now work as a Senior Marine Mammal Trainer at the National Aquarium. My experiences as a trainer at KBMML certainly shaped who I am as a dolphin trainer today. They also helped me find my voice in sharing these very special animals with others, whether guests at our aquarium, professionals or aspiring professionals within our industry, or people outside our field.


It was particularly special to discover Lou’s influence on many of the people with whom I now work. Last year, I went to Hawaii to give a talk at a career celebration in honor of Lou. I was one of many speakers at this event, attended by more than 40 people whose lives were positively impacted by their experiences with Lou and KBMML over the decades. It was set up as a surprise for Lou, and was he ever touched and surprised to see so many old friends.


My own talk mentioned how Lou’s work influenced people far and wide, including several people working with me at the National Aquarium. I then shared quotes from these individuals, sharing how Lou influenced them. These are listed below.




Allison Ginsburg (curator of marine mammals at National Aquarium) meets Akeakamai, 1992
"My father knew how much I loved dolphins, so he helped me find an opportunity to work alongside them in the summer after I graduated high school. We found the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory Earthwatch program and I signed up. This experience changed the course of my life. Dr. Herman and his team instilled in me a deep appreciation for the cognitive capabilities of dolphins, and my time at his lab confirmed my desire to work in the marine mammal field. 
Over twenty years later, I am still extremely passionate about my career with marine mammals. At the National Aquarium, I dedicate myself to leading our marine mammal team and to supporting scientists interested in discovering more about the dolphins. Dr. Herman and his dolphins absolutely inspired me in a big way."

Sarah Carter, spring intern at National Aquarium 2015
"In my Sophomore year of college at Towson University, I took a seminar-type class called 'A Seminar in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior.' The class was once a week, and every week one student got to pick a groundbreaking research article to present to the class and lead a discussion on the paper. I have loved marine mammals since I was very young, and so I knew early on I was going to choose a paper on marine mammals. When it was finally my turn, I started researching marine mammal cognition, and stumbled upon Lou Herman.  
I presented Herman's 1984 paper called 'Comprehension of sentences by bottlenose dolphins' and I was just completely blown away by his research. It was this research that inspired me to pursue my dream of animal behavior and cognition. Since then, I have kept up with Lou Herman's research and have read every paper I can get my hands on!


Dr. Mark and Cindy Turner, marine mammal researchers

"It is well recognized that Louis Herman’s research is of the highest scientific quality. But beyond this, his unique approach has delighted and surprised us. We have been influenced by its creativity, imagination and originality, inspiring us to explore ideas we otherwise would not have considered. This is the best kind of science. Thank you, Dr. Herman."

And one quote by a dear friend who isn’t affiliated with National Aquarium but who worked with me at KBMML for years and whose career resulted from her experiences with Lou at KBMML:





Dr. Daisy Kaplan, St. Mary's College of MD, KBMML/TDI volunteer 1999-2002, studying dolphins in the Bahamas

"Last year, I finished my Ph.D. in biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience from Hunter College of CUNY – my thesis work centered on dolphin behavior.  
I’ve been running a long-term field study of wild bottlenose and spotted dolphins in the Bahamas since 2002.  I am published, and am also a reviewer for several peer-reviewed journals.  All of the steps that led me here were because of the experience I gained while at KBMML.  
After four years at KBMML, I applied for, got in to, and completed a Master’s program in Biology. I did not intend to get my Ph.D., but three people convinced me to go back.  One of these three people was Lou Herman.  Lou cornered me at a wedding and began the conversation with, “I have a tip for you.”  He convinced me to apply to the Ph.D. program at Hunter College of CUNY, working with Dr. Diana Reiss.   
I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis in May. My career goal is in education.  I have been teaching college courses for over eight years.  Some of these courses touch on comparative cognition and communication.  One of the topics is whether non-human animals have any components of language.  Nothing demonstrates this better than a video of Akeakamai’s language study.  When the topic is sensation and perception (or echolocation), I present Elele’s cross-modal studies.  I also do outreach at various schools. Through the videos and the stories, the KBMML dolphins and Lou’s research continue to amaze and educate."

I truly believe Lou is responsible for changing the way the world thinks about cetaceans. His research findings resulted in both a tremendous interest in cetacean conservation and a push for change in the laws that protect them. Without some of Lou's findings, I wholeheartedly believe whales and dolphins would not have the protection they enjoy today.


I feel so lucky to have worked with Lou for so many years. Lou taught me so much about being a voice for dolphins and whales. He allowed me to work with and learn from his beloved dolphins. He inspired me to make a difference, and he helped me discover my own unique path for doing so.


With Akeakamai

Lou was so much more than a scientist. He was also a gifted teacher, leader, mentor, and friend. He was open-minded and true. I feel so honored to have worked with him, been inspired by him, and to have known him. He always accepted me for who I was, and had a kind smile I cannot express enough just how much Lou’s leadership, mentoring, and friendship meant to me over the past 21 years.

With Lou in 1995, and 20 years later in 2015

My heart aches that I will never see and speak with Lou again, but I know his legacy lives on in all those whose lives he touched over the years. Mahalo nui loa (thank you very much), Lou, for everything. Me ke aloha pumehana (with lots of love).

KBMML as seen from Ala Moana Beach

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much Susie for such a beautiful piece. I never met Louis but his work has been a fixture in my career with marine mammals. Like you, I believe his work was crucial to changing perceptions about cetaceans and directing awareness towards conservation. He was truly inspirational and I am incredibly grateful to have lived in his time. My thoughts go to his loved ones and all who knew him.

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  2. Thanks, Libby, for your kind words! Lou was incredible, and I am glad he touched your life as well! :)

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