In this occasional series, we ask Arts & Sciences instructors to discuss how they engage students in the great questions of our time.
Hormones and Behavior
Q. In a few sentences, how would you describe this course?
A: This course is about the relationship between behavior and the circulating levels of hormones in the body. We look at sex differences, mating behaviors, social behaviors, parental behaviors, and how circulating levels of hormones change due to changes in behavior.
Q. What makes this course appealing to students?
A: I think one of the exciting things is that we’re all interested in how other animals, but mostly humans, behave. A good portion of the human experience is all about mating, reproduction, and socializing. All the things we care about as humans are affected by these biological systems, down to neurological differences between men and women versus how we might express different social relationships to each other.
I think these are intrinsically interesting topics to humans. We care about this kind of stuff, but we don’t often get to look under the hood and see how our biological systems are altering our expressions of these behaviors that are part and parcel of who we are.
Q. Why is this course important?
A: Our culture is changing very rapidly, relative to previous decades. The pace of change is accelerating, and I think it’s essential for us to understand, to make sense of modern humans and modern culture, that we are at some level biological creatures. Much of what we do every day is part of ancient programs that we are not privy to seeing.
It is essentially about understanding that we are not blank slates. We have millions of years’ evolutionary lineage and contextualize what’s happening in the modern world with what biology shows us. It’s been enlightening for students to see the relationship between their biology and even their feelings. Feelings are, in a sense, an expression of brain patterns and hormones. This course, I think, gives students a better appreciation for what it means to be human.
Q. How can students take this course into the workforce?
A: The principal skill taught in this course is utilizing, interpreting, and describing data. As far as fundamental skills for the modern world, you’d be hard-pressed to find an essential set of skills in the STEM field. I think it’s a less one-to-one connection, but taking the ability to put data in a larger group of understanding is a set of skills they will always have.
The feedback from students is that they appreciate that approach, and it transfers over to a lot of the other classes they take. Being critical is also essential. You don’t teach a student what to know. You teach them how to learn. That’s my larger goal. We use this biological set of systems to explain that.
Q. What got you interested in this subject?
A: When I got into research, I was most interested in evolution and behavior in the natural context. My background is in Psychology, and I spent a lot of my undergraduate trying to understand the principles of psychology. While that was valuable, it got me more interested in natural behaviors. When I came to Georgia State, I did my Ph.D. on sex-changing fish. These fish would change sex from female to male and vice versa as adults.
Natural scientists look at all sorts of fish models like this. Natural scientists love to study them because they separate behavior from the typical gonads. Typically, we think that the ovaries produce a specific type of hormone. In the classic male to a female model, we have that. This type-II male looks and acts like a female in every way but is entirely male externally and internally.
For my dissertation, I studied how females who reproduce as females turn into males and how they go back and forth. That was my first introduction to hormones and behavior. How is it that the hormones produced by the gonad cause changes in the brain and behavior? I also have an undergraduate research lab that studies the effects of stress on social bonds as well.
— Interview by Emma Barrett (B.A., English, ’25)