Kenny Chiou

About Me

I am a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University. As a primate biologist, my research centers on the intersection of behavior, ecology, and genetics. I am interested in the evolution of populations; in particular, I aim to understand how demography, behavior, and local adaptation contribute to the past and present spatial distribution of genetic variation in primates. I am also interested in the origins and evolution of novel behavioral strategies and social organizations. As an anthropologist, I am ultimately interested in using extant primate populations as models of regional human evolution.

For my Ph.D. dissertation, I will conduct a population genomic study of two baboon species in Zambia. Around the area of Kafue National Park, the distributions of Kinda (Papio kindae) and gray-footed chacma (Papio ursinus griseipes) baboons come together. As is common in baboons, the two species hybridize (interbreed) successfully at this contact zone, causing alleles to be exchanged between species. The genetic outcomes of hybridization are influenced by myriad factors, providing an opportunity to evaluate how social and ecological factors influence genetic structure in the hybrid zone. As widespread, parapatrically distributed terrestrial primates with subtle ecological adaptations to local environments and a propensity for hybridization, baboons closely mirror our developing understanding of Homo sapiens and related extinct archaic humans. Therefore, this study will serve as a model for understanding the mechanisms and outcomes of hybridization in humans using a baboon analogy (find out more).

Aside from my primary research goals, I am also interested in informatic methods for collecting, managing, and standardizing data in field primatology. Towards this end, I have experimented with database development and, particularly, with software development for data collection in the field. As a fieldworker, I am particularly concerned with issues of usability, and so dabble in the fields of user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. I am currently collaborating with Anthony Di Fiore, Tom Igoe, Robyn Overstreet, and Jane Phillips-Conroy to develop data standards and software tools for “next-generation” primatological data management (find out more).

More informally, I am interested in the role that researchers can play as educators and social entrepreneurs and the ways in which their fieldwork can interact with local communities to promote positive change. Fieldwork is without a doubt the most exciting aspect of anthropology. In a unique sense, however, it offers a valuable opportunity for researchers to pursue goals not directly related to research, including community development, education, and conservation. For primatologists, conservation is a particularly salient goal as an alarming fraction of nonhuman primates face extinction pressures from deforestation, hunting, and other human activity. While this is not a primary focus of my research, it is an issue that influences me and that I consider in my research planning.