Nguyen is originally from Vietnam and came to the U.S. as a boat refugee at the age of seven. Raised by a single mom in New York City, she spent summers at the library. “I just worked my way through the various shelves of the library, and one day found this shelf full of memoirs by scientists working in Africa.” She devoured books by anthropologists, especially those by Dian Fossey, Donald Johanson, and Louis Leakey. “I dreamed about this glamorous life of rolling a suitcase onto an airplane and flying off to remote corners of Africa to study one wild animal or another.”
Early in college, Nguyen enrolled in a primate behavior course and “learned the professor - Marina Cords – studied monkeys in Kenya and sometimes took students along with her on her research trips! So, I went to her office hours and asked her, ‘How do I become you when I grow up?’”
Later as a PhD student, Nguyen studied wild baboon behavior at Amboseli, Kenya and lived out of a tent for 16 months, despite having never camped previously. Today, she directs a long-term project on wild gelada monkey behavior and ecology in the mountains of Ethiopia, where during her summer research trips she also lives out of a tent.
Nguyen notes that in field work, scientists need flexibility. "Sometimes animals don't show up, or we lose the animals for days at a time, but studying monkeys is like watching a soap opera. The animals that we study have complex lives. They have friends, brothers and sisters that they squabble with. Sometimes relationships get tested, and they get repaired, and grudges get held. It's the sort of thing that you see in people but played out among animals. You will know that this is the job for you if you get excited watching these events unfold before you, and are also eager to understand what you see happening through careful study."
Nguyen will take the skills she has developed through her studies of wild primates to Norway and apply them to a new set of study subjects - preschool children. In Oslo, she plans to follow children between the ages of three and five while they are playing in different preschool settings. In conventional preschools in Norway, students spend two or more hours playing outside every day and the remainder indoors. She will compare the play behavior of those preschoolers to the play behavior of preschoolers who are enrolled in “nature preschools” where children are outdoors all day, every day, no matter the weather. Nguyen notes that, “Norwegians don’t believe in bad weather, just bad clothing” and that with the appropriate warm clothing, being outdoors in winter is a joyful experience for most Norwegians.
Studies have shown that the play environments we provide children affect how they play. Nguyen hypothesizes that preschoolers will play in a less gender segregated way outdoors in nature where they have less access to toys and other forms of human material culture. She expects to find fewer differences in play behavior among girls and boys in nature preschools than in conventional preschools, where girls tend to devote more time to play activities that develop their social skills (compared to boys), and boys tend to devote more time to activities that develop their spatial skills (compared to girls). She will also study the microbiota of both groups of children, from studying their feces, to see if nature preschoolers of both sexes – because of their greater immersion in the outdoors – will have more functionally diverse microbes in their gut. Our microbes are vitally important for keeping us healthy, so it would be exciting to uncover more evidence that playing outdoors in nature enriches not only our minds but our bodies from a young age.
About Dr. Nguyen
Dr. Nga Nguyen is a Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University and her B.A in Anthropology and Biology at Barnard College, Columbia University. Nguyen has published scientific papers in a variety of journals, including Animal Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Hormones and Behavior, Microbiome, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, American Journal of Primatology, and International Journal of Primatology.
About the Fulbright Program
The Fulbright program offers grants for U.S. citizens to study, teach, and conduct research abroad, and for non-U.S. citizens to do the same in the United States. Considered the flagship governmentally sponsored international educational exchange program, it is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries.