Smiling from across the table sits Tyler Bonnell. A soft-spoken man with striking blue eyes and a well-trimmed beard, it is hard to imagine that this young parent is a world expert on mapping primate behavior.
Because of his early combined interests as an undergraduate in health related topics, maps and a gift for working with computers, Dr. Raja Sengupta and Dr. Colin Chapman from McGill University hand-picked him for graduate studies to investigate a new frontier in science.
“Because he had an interest in these fields and was (computer) programming on his own, we found him to be the perfect student,” said Dr. Sengupta.
In what looks like an archaic version of Pac-Man, Tyler spends his days programming how virtual primates might move in different landscapes. It can be anything from how a monkey acts when it’s hungry, to how it moves around a forest when it is sick.
“It’s my own virtual laboratory. I run tests under strict scenarios, tweak them, and then see what happens,” said Tyler about his research.
Welcome to the world of agent-based modeling (ABM).
“ABM started with economics, what people might call computational social science,” said Dr. Sengupta, “people would replicate the stock market, with agents buying or selling stocks and shares to simulate what would happen in the real world.”
An agent can be anything you want to learn about, which you place in a model. Dr. Sengupta said that people began realizing that agents had to have landscapes.
In Tyler’s case, the agent is the colobus monkey, a herbivorous primate species that lives in and around the lush Kibale National Park in Uganda. His PhD focuses on combining ABM with health and geographical information systems (GIS).
Using data collected over the years by Dr. Chapman from Kibale, Tyler has pieced together a complex, virtual world where he can observe what happens to primate agents if their programmed food sources are altered.
On his computer screen, the primates are represented by tiny dots. They move as individuals within a social group, sharing information about food sources in a forest landscape that Tyler has created through real data.
“I use ABM to simulate foraging patterns, to see how primates move. If they are driven by their natural habitat, we can see how changes to the environment can change the rates that diseases spread. There’s awareness that ABM will become more important because of the rate that we’re changing the environment,” said Tyler.
“It’s a pretty powerful tool,” said Dr. Chapman.
“People are interested in how diseases spread. We share a lot with primates, being so closely related to them, which include diseases like AIDS and Ebola. Tyler can look at what could happen if an outbreak occurred. This would let us look at what mechanisms could be put in place to stop it from spreading,” said Dr. Chapman.
Tyler’s talents with ABM let him work in dynamic settings that let him answer “what if” questions with relative accuracy, which is particularly useful when raising a child who constantly asks “why?”