Emma’s first degree was in Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham, where she initially developed an interest in animal behaviour and cognition. Emma subsequently went on to complete an MSc in Animal Behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University, where her research focused on competitive grazing interactions between zebra, buffalo and domestic cattle in a Kenyan game reserve.
In 2009 she returned to Birmingham to begin a NERC-funded PhD under the co-supervision of Dr. Jackie Chappell and Dr. Susannah Thorpe working on primate cognition, with a particular focus on differences in cognitive ability between great apes and other primates. Specifically, using orangutans as a model for the last common ancestor of the great apes, she is interested in cognitive capacities that might have evolved in response to the physical selection pressure of locomotion in a complex arboreal habitat for a large-bodied animal. Such a habitat poses the unique challenges of crossing gaps in the canopy and moving on highly compliant branches that deform under an animal's weight. In such a situation, the ability to 'mentally simulate', or 'plan' different possible courses of action and their outcomes prior to implementing behaviour would be extremely useful, and investigating this forms the focus of her current work.
She has designed physical problem-solving tasks that require subjects to consider multiple obstacles or carry out a specific sequence of actions in order to obtain a food reward. Trial-unique task presentations and detailed post-hoc analyses aim to elucidate how such tasks are approached, with regards to the underlying cognitive mechanisms.