Cal State Fullerton professor leads students in studies of animal cognition and human psychology

In Features, Lifestyle
(Cassandra Hearn / Daily Titan)

Cal State Fullerton psychology professor Jessie Peissig was first inspired to study animal behavior by a cow named Measles. While growing up on a farm in Wisconsin surrounded by animals, Peissig watched as Measles learned from the family dog how to chase cars down her street.

“We had to tie her up so she would stop,” Peissig said. “I can’t imagine what that poor driver must have thought seeing that in his rearview mirror.”

Measles was given her name due to her spotted coat. The cow was best friends with the family dog, and together they were double trouble for Peissig’s parents.

“They would actually go into the garage. The calf was tall enough to pull things off shelves, and then the dog would chew it up, so they caused all kinds of trouble,” Peissig said.

Her love of animals influenced her choice to study psychology and biology at Winona State University in Minnesota. Peissig uses her background in neuroscience and biology in the classes she teaches at CSUF.

“A lot of the research that we do with animals actually helps us to develop new technologies, learn about ourselves and learn about how animals solve problems,” Peissig said.

The professor’s areas of study include object and face recognition in humans and animals, and Peissig has been teaching psychology at CSUF since 2006. The psychology department was searching for a professor who had experience in conducting research with animals at that time, and Peissig ended up teaching a comparative animal behavior class.

In graduate school, Peissig conducted research on visual recognition in pigeons. She described the pigeons she worked with as friendly, smart and good at multitasking.

Peissig received her doctorate from the University of Iowa, where she studied behavioral and cognitive neuroscience. For her postdoctorate at Brown University, Peissig joined a group of researchers studying cognitive behavior in monkeys and humans.

“That was ideal for me as I’d never done human research before, but I really liked the idea of continuing animal research with monkeys,” Peissig said.

She also mentors several psychology students and helps them organize their own research labs through Maximizing Access to Research Careers, an on-campus program that connects students with faculty in biomedical research programs.

Erick Aguinaldo, a CSUF psychology student, began working with Peissig over the summer on a research careers program study focusing mainly on makeup and its affect on how attractive a person is considered to be and the impact it has on a person’s perceived capability.

Peissig helped to connect Aguinaldo with materials for his research and a possible faculty advisor in graduate school.

“That’s a huge deal, being able to talk to your mentor and have them recommend you to someone else for graduate school,” Aguinaldo said.

After one year, senior Alexis Drain continues to work with Peissig through research careers. Her study focuses on how important eyebrows are in facial recognition.

Drain also described Peissig as relatable and funny, adding that she often shares stories about her life and her kids with her students.

As a mentor, both Aguinaldo and Drain said Peissig is accessible, helpful and genuine.

“I think she’s always on the lookout for things that we can do to improve ourselves, not only as scholars and researchers, but also as graduate school applicants,” Aguinaldo said.

Peissig believes mentoring is an important component to being a good professor. In her postdoctorate program, she was mentored by a professor who was not afraid to admit his own mistakes and she still uses the advice he gave her to this day, which is focusing on what’s best for the student, not what you want out of the research.

As for her comparative animal behavior classes, Peissig wants her students to leave with a greater appreciation for animal cognition.

Peissig was an only child until the age of five and connected quickly with the animals on her farm. Whether it was one of the many pigs, cows, cats or dogs her family owned, Peissig felt like they were all a part of her family.

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