Meet Dr. Kirsty Graham, a primatologist trying to decipher meaning in primate communication!

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

Kirsty during behavioral observations/ Kirsty Graham

Right at the moment, I’m working on an online experiment (to be released next month, contact me for more information) looking at whether humans understand the gestures of other great apes. Bonobos and chimpanzees use gestures to communicate and they share most of their gestures and gesture meanings. If gestures are biologically inherited, there is a chance that humans might understand chimpanzee and bonobo gestures. This ties into my main research on bonobo gestures and is a new approach to studying gestures in humans.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

The hardest part of my research is the fieldwork, but it’s also the best part. What’s hard about it is that my partner and I spend very little time in the same place, because we both do fieldwork. It helps that we understand why one another does fieldwork and there isn’t one of us always waiting at home for the other. We also try to always have a plan for where and when we’re going to meet next. The fieldwork itself is awesome and rewarding, but it is hard on relationships, friendships, and family.

Kirsty during field work/ Kirsty Graham

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

Ummm, sexual harassment is a really difficult thing to talk about. My case wasn’t super severe or long term, but it was still unpleasant, and I was very grateful to have an incredible female mentor to support me and validate my experience. She took over the complaint process for me and was absolutely incredible. If any of my students ever experience sexual harassment (which I hope they don’t), then I would take the lessons from my mentor and try to deal with it as calmly and determinedly as she did.

Do you come from an academic family?

I’m the first person in my family to get a Ph.D., but I come from a family of teachers – my mom, two grandparents, and three cousins are teachers. Teaching is an underrated part of being an academic. I’m still at a stage where I’m mostly doing research, but teaching is a big reason I developed an interest in academia and I’m quite looking forward to it.

How does your family regard your career choice?

Hahaha. They’re all super proud of me. I laughed because my dad was puzzled and amazed by my Ph.D. – “So, you are a student but you get paid?” Now that I’m a postdoc, I’m a bit more on the “actual job” side of the career line, but I think he’s still impressed that I can get paid for doing what I do.

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

This one time, I was out for dinner with a few other primatologists and biologists whom I had just met, and I was the only woman at the table. One of the men said, “I heard that lots of women are attracted to primatology because the monkeys remind them of babies”. I replied that “I’m the only woman here at this table, and I see no reason why I have to be a primatologist because monkeys remind me of babies, but that Prof X is a primatologist out of scientific interest. Either Prof X also finds monkeys cute like babies, or I am also allowed to have genuine scientific interest.” Most people laughed, and the man who had asked the question looked a bit sheepish. I doubt that many people have the nerve to say what he said, but there are definitely prejudices surrounding female primatologists.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

Teaching in class is part of Kirsty´s job, too/ Kirsty Graham

I know that representation can’t change everything, but having women mentors made a big difference to me. In my high school, all of the science teachers were men and I was turned off of physics because the teacher gave the boys way more attention, no matter how hard I worked or well I did. I don’t think he was even aware that he was doing it. But when I got to university and saw women doing science, that’s when it really clicked that I could fit into this system. There are obviously bigger things that could change, but as an entry point, that was really important for me.


You can contact Kirsty at and follow her on Twitter!