Meet Jessica Burkhart
Jessica Burkhart is a Ph.D. candidate working for the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Her research investigates the neurological mechanisms modulating social behavior in large cats. This is a unique opportunity because there is such a large spectrum of behavior across felids, from social lions to asocial leopards. Jessica seeks to identify differences in densities and distributions of neuropeptides, such as oxytocin and dopamine, in the social African lion and its asocial cousins, the leopard, tiger, and cheetah. She is working on characterizing these social neural networks across social and asocial carnivores. Jessica is also running behavioral studies where she has administered oxytocin intranasally to lions, leopards, and cheetahs during three different types of social interactions. These behavioral analyses will be correlated with brain morphology and distribution of receptors and will provide insight into solitary and affiliative behaviors. Jessica loves learning about the brain, and working with large cats, and she is passionate about this work as she believes that the knowledge of these highly preserved social networks in the mammalian brain will allow us to better understand social disorders such as autism and depression. Also, as we understand how social information is processed differently in the brains of these endangered large cats, it will help wildlife reserves design the most effective, sustainable introduction and management programs, contributing to conservation.