Jennifer Schneider: Whales, Research and LCC

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Jennifer Schneider, professor in the Department of Social Sciences, came to LCC International University in 2011. Jennifer teaches neuroscience classes, and still manages to work in the field of her passion – studying animal behavior. Combining full time work at LCC and researching whales, wolves, and dolphins, Jennifer feels a sense of belonging to Klaipėda and to LCC.

Jennifer, how long have you been at LCC International University?

I heard about LCC back in 2000 when a friend of mine was applying to study here. In 2004, I came to her graduation, but I only started working at LCC in 2011 after I finished my Ph.D. Currently, I teach all of the neuro and cognitive psychology courses. I am also interested in researching animal behavior and the reason I am able to teach psychology and natural science classes at LCC is because of my upper level degrees. I have multiple degrees in studying animal behavior and have studied wolves, whales, seals, and dolphins. Animal communication in particular has always interested me because many animals that live in groups they have to coordinate with each other, and they do not have the sophisticated language we have. I have always been interested in how these communication systems work effectively.

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Could you elaborate more on the diversity of your degrees?

I started out as a biologist because I wanted to study animals, then I took a gap year and was living in Riga, Latvia. I worked with a missions organization there and was doing some readings in biblical studies and I went to seminary for my own personal growth. I still wanted to have masters degree in biology, so while I was working on my MSc (Master of Science), I applied to the whale program. Working with whales was a lifelong dream of mine and it just kept taking me places, which is amazing. LCC is a success for me because I can combine my interests in the Baltic states and my interest in biology, and I sometimes get to use a theology degree.

How are you able to combine teaching classes as well as continuing your research?

It is not always easy but one thing that helps my research is archived data. For instance, when I write about humpback whale songs I can go back to the recordings, analyze them and see if I can find any new information. I also work with a colleague at Klaipėda University, researching seals and we are more interested in their well-being. We are looking into seals that live under human care throughout Europe and what we can do to make their lives better. At LCC we have a sabbatical system, and after five years of working full time here I took one semester off just to do research. I spent six weeks learning how to train seals at the University of Rostock, Rostock, Germany. I wanted to use this experience and understand how I can be a better researcher and design better experiments.

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Some of the research articles of yours that can be found on ResearchGate include work on the sound production in humpback whales. Could you tell us more about this research and perhaps even about the process of receiving the audio recordings?

Researching sound production in humpback whales was my dissertation topic. Studying whales is very difficult because they do not live in captivity, so they are in the ocean and we can only see them when they come to the surface. As researchers we know very little about what their lives are like long-term. What I do is back engineering, meaning that instead of working with the whale and finding how it produces the song, I start with the recording of a song and look at its properties. There is a lot of physics involved and trying to figure out what is happening inside the whale, it takes a lot of work. This is where you work in groups of teams who know more than you about different aspects of the topic, so that you can put all the pieces together. The last paper I wrote about humpback whales was about rhythm in their songs and concluded they are not as clearly rhythmic as music. When I was doing my Ph.D., I did some recordings in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. In Puerto Rico it was hard to get a recording of the whale without lots of other whales in the background. You put a hydrophone in the water next to one whale and you can hear twenty of them! It was challenging, but it was extremely fun to be in Hawaii. 

You are also a member of various societies connected to mammals and animals in some way. Can you share more about your involvement in those societies?

I have free access to the Animal Behavior Society and their publications on animal behavior, where a lot of really good research is done. I am also involved with the Acoustic Society of America. I did a lot of work with them when I was doing my Ph.D. and had my papers published in their journal. Being a member of different societies is a great way of connecting with other professionals.

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Are you currently involved with research on any other animals?

For my master’s degree I studied wolves, so I still have a colleague in Canada where we are working on a wolf project. We were interested in wolves because they have a reputation for being aggressive and that is really overstated. It turns out if you put a bunch of wolves in a small pen they get aggressive with each other. However, in the wild they are really not that aggressive within their group. As researchers we were looking at the friendly sounds that wolves make to each other when they are cooperating. Our research was mainly interested in structures of the sounds and trying to figure out if we could determine meaning from the sounds based on the context they are produced in.

Do you have any future plans about Lithuania and your life here?

I am learning Lithuanian and it is a very challenging language. I have never been good at languages, but I have tried learning several and I am doing the best in Lithuanian. In November 2018 I had to pass state exams, so as of now I officially have A-1 level Lithuanian. In terms of future plans, I am planning on buying a house in Lithuania, so I will be settling down here for a while.