At the forefront… of office pets!

Research can be a tough gig for professors and graduate students alike. Long hours, endless grants and papers to write, and constant stress just come with the territory. Sometimes, having a companion in the office or lab can help brighten the atmosphere and make everything just a little easier to manage.

We chat with three UChicago Biological Sciences Division professors and two graduate students about the pets that keep them company at work.

Tell us about your pet(s)?

Erin Adams, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology: This is my dog and office partner Xena. She comes with me every day to work and provides therapy to me and my department mates. Xena just turned three this year. She’s a Labrador mix. The other ½ of her is Catahoula leopard dog – a breed common in the south, used for hunting and other farm-based activities. I adopted her when she was eight weeks old from PAWS, which is a shelter in Chicago, and she has been coming to the lab since she was a puppy. Everyone knows her really well and she knows them too. The entire department has seen her grow from a little furball to what she is today.

Yoav Gilad, PhD, professor of human genetics: They’re dart frogs from Ecuador. When they eat insects in the wild, they can generate poison. Then they’re poison dart frogs. These are not poisonous because the only thing they eat are drosophila (which I culture myself). Frogs and turtles are my favorite animals, and tiny frogs in particular. One day for my birthday my wife told me she got in touch with a breeder who could help me set up a frog vivarium. I’ve had them for two and a half years. I started with 6, now I have countless. I think there are 30 or 40 by now.

Vinnie Lynch, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics: I have a couple of Betas, or Siamese fighting fish, as they’re better known – two males and a female. They’re really pretty and dimorphic. The females are tiny and bland, and the males are large and have elaborate fins and have lots of strange color combinations. They’re from Southeast Asia. The wild ones live in small pools and don’t have nearly as elaborate fins. But because they’re from small pools, they’re used to surviving in dirty water and in small spaces, which is why they’re good aquarium pets. People have been breeding them to have elaborate colors and fins for at least a couple hundred years.

Carrie Albertin, graduate student in organismal biology and anatomy and Yan Wang, graduate student in neurobiology (from the lab of Cliff Ragsdale, PhD): This is our pet Schadenfreude (pronounced Scooten Frudie). He was an animal we actually hatched here, probably about six or seven months ago. We hatched him from a little embryo, and then we brought him up here when he was getting a little too big from his container downstairs so we could film him and his behavior and development. And now he’s giant and very charismatic. He eats a range of seafood delicacies, including littleneck clams, shrimps, fiddler crabs and mussels. It’s an expensive habit. He eats better than the grad students.

What’s up with the name?

Erin Adams: I have always been very entertained by the Xena the Warrior Princess show with Lucy Lawless. Xena is a very strong willed female character, so I named her that very early on. It stuck. She’s actually quite a timid dog, so not much of a warrior princess. She definitely does not do the battle cry like you see on TV.

Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang: It was a collective moment, a democratic decision. There’s a Youtube video called “how to pronounce schadenfreude,” and they pronounced it “scooten frudie.” I think it was an incredibly draining day for all of us, but we watched that probably like 10 times that day. It was shortly after [Scooten Frudie] joined us up here, so it made a lot of sense. It was very appropriate.

Yoav Gilad: I didn’t name them. I didn’t even name my cats, I called them cat one and cat two… well now that I have kids we had to name them…

Vinnie Lynch: Names? No. I can probably give them names. There’s the blue one and the muddled one and the female.

Why an office pet?

Erin Adams: The reason I really wanted to start bringing her in was for the therapy aspect of it. I think she really helps the atmosphere and brings down the stress level quite a bit. Having a dog also helps focus you on the really important things in life, which is taking care of yourself and the things you love. It’s very easy to get lost in writing a grant and sit at your desk for 14 hours at a time.

Yoav Gilad: I don’t know if the frogs help with stress, but they certainly help procrastinate. Looking at them when you have something important to do makes the time go by. You can open the vivarium and just watch them instead of writing your grant, so that’s fun.

Vinnie Lynch: They’re very relaxing. If I’m reading a paper, I’ll just put my legs up and watch the fish in between paragraphs if I’m thinking deeply of something. It sort of shifts your focus to something else, and you can think in the background when you’re watching something peaceful.

Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang: There have been a long string of octopus pets in the lab. Being in Chicago, we don’t get a lot of interaction time with our study animal in its natural habitat. Getting to observe his behavior up close and in real time has been exciting. It’s one thing to read about behaviors or aspects of their physiology, it’s another to come in in the morning and see him doing it. He’s also a big distraction, especially when you’re in the pits of doing data analysis or writing or whatever. It’s really nice to see your animal and be reminded of the work you’re actually doing.

What do people think when they visit you:

Erin Adams: I have visitors probably two to three times a day. Usually the regulars. My colleagues will stop by not intending to talk to me (even though usually that happens) but to play with her. The side product of that is I can talk science with my colleagues who I might not see on a frequent basis. I think she’s also a recruitment factor to bring people to the lab. She provides a real release for students and postdocs who might be stressed out about what they’re doing during the day. The process of petting a furry animal really helps to reduce the stress.

Yoav Gilad: Almost all of them ask what I have in the vivarium and ask to open it and look. Some ask me if I can help them build one. By now I find it strange if someone sits there and doesn’t mention something, especially if the frogs are active and vocal. When students interview… I think my students by now always tell the other students: you have to ask about the frogs, otherwise he immediately won’t like you [that much]. Now when students interview, that’s the first thing they ask.

Vinnie Lynch: People comment all the time. That’s kind of why they’re there. These offices can be sterile and boring, so they can bring some life to the office.

Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang: He has a lot of fans. A lot of our friends, they know we have octopuses, so they ask to come and play with him. Or friends’ kids, they get a kick out of Schadenfreude. He’s a good outreach tool.

Does it ever get distracting have a pet around?

Erin Adams: It’s very easy to get lost in writing a grant or paper. Having something that requires you to get up and walk around is actually much better for your health. I have ‘before dog’ and ‘after dog’ eras of my professional career. Before dog, I had a range of terrible back issues, and I think it was because I was sitting for long periods of time writing grants. After dog, you can only sit for so many hours before you know you have to get up and take care of this little furry being. It motives you to be much more careful with your time and when you’re working and when you aren’t working.

Yoav Gilad: Noise? That’s not noise, that’s a mating call. It’s not noise. I love that it’s a little jungle in my office.

Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang: Octopuses are kind of like cats of the sea. They’re very temperamental and we work to please him. He’ll come play with you when he wants, and when he doesn’t he’ll be aloof. He shoots water in our faces a lot of the time. And poo. He lets his feelings be known. Especially when he was downstairs and in a smaller container. When we could come to feed him, he would spit water at us. They have shockingly good aim, they’ll get you right in the face.

Poo? 

Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang: The same funnel that shoots the water is also where they get rid of solid organic waste, so sometimes it contains poo. It’s a bit of a risk being an octopus owner.

Ever think about doing research related to your pet?

Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang: We’re actually working on a paper that features Scooten Frudie. We used videos of him to explain to people different aspects of octopus morphology and behavior. For example, most people think the part behind the eyes is where the brain is, but that’s actually where they keep all of their guts. Trying to explain this unusual arrangement is done best with images.

Yoav Gilad: I don’t do anything with animals. It’s all cell lines and frozen tissues. If I ever would it would be something behavioral, because I just don’t do anything bad to animals.

Vinnie Lynch: Yeah totally. I would love to sequence their genomes and figure out what’s responsible for the sexual dimorphism and color patterns. Someone asked me other day if anyone’s done that kind of research so I looked it up and no one is. It wouldn’t be that expensive but I’d still need funding. I’ve thought about crowdfunding it. There are these Kickstarters for doing science. Maybe I can see if I can get a bunch of people to give me money to sequence beta genomes.

Favorite thing about your pet?

Erin Adams: Knowing she’s back here when I’m away with other faculty or at meetings. Just like with any dog, having that greeting when you first open the door and see them just so happy to see you… all those positive endorphins immediately start flowing in your head. It’s a great way of getting back into the office.

Yoav Gilad: I have cultures of fruit flies here to feed the frogs. The thing is, fruit flies are not very nutritious so you have to dust them with vitamins. So my daughter thought frogs eat flies and vitamins. In Lab school, when the teacher went over what each animal eats, my daughter had a fit because she argued that frogs don’t eat just flies, they eat flies and vitamins. The teacher couldn’t figure out where the vitamins came from. It was cute.

Vinnie Lynch: I’m not a very stressed person, but the fish certainly help keep the aura of peace around.

Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang: I mean, talk about a charismatic animal. He’s a lot of fun to watch and interact with. I just love the weird facts about octopuses. They have a donut shaped brain. And blue blood. It’s fun to watch their camouflage. They can change their complete appearance in flash of a second or change their color or texture of their skin. It’s really mind boggling.

About Kevin Jiang (147 Articles)
Kevin Jiang is a Science Writer and Media Relations Specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. He focuses on neuroscience and neurosurgery, orthopedics, psychology, genetics, biology, evolution, biomedical and basic science research.
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