November 2, 1998
Volume 51, No. 10
McDonough and her monkeys have incentive for research
If Ann McDonough needed any more reason to believe in her work as a research specialist at Yerkes, that reason came into the world two years ago and was named John Cameron.
John is her son, a little boy with light brown hair who looks just like his father, McDonough's husband, Chris. Already aunt to a gaggle of nieces and nephews, McDonough knew she loved kids, but it took having her own to bring home the importance of the research she does every day with her other "kids"-a group of 16 female Rhesus monkeys.
"When you have a child, you want to protect him from everything," McDonough said. "If something were to happen and he were to get injured and have to go to the hospital, I would want them to have the most up-to-date medicines, the most up-to-date equipment and surgery techniques. That's why you do this type of work."
And her type of work involves studying the effects of Parkinson's disease treatments under professors Roy Bakay in neurosurgery and Leonard Howell in neuroscience at Yerkes. McDonough trains her "girls"--Beeper, Betsy, Verbena, Hiawassee and a dozen more--to perform tasks that utilize both hands. For example, in one procedure the monkeys must press down two levers at the same time, at which point an icon appears on a video screen before them. Depending on which of two icons appears, the monkey then must press either her right or left hand to the screen and, if she performs the task correctly, is rewarded with a food pellet.
Once the monkey learns the task, researchers deliver a drug to simulate the effects of Parkinson's and then administer treatments to see how well they work. "In terms of breakthroughs," McDonough said, "what I can tell you is that the animals I have in there were Parkinsonian, and now they don't appear to be. We know our treatments have some benefit, but we just have to prove it."
A year-and-a-half ago McDonough's interest in Parkinson's became more than professional after her father was diagnosed with the disease. He attributed the symptoms to age and other causes, "but then came the day I watched him holding his coffee cup," McDonough remembered, "and he was just shaking."
In fact, many of the researchers at Yerkes have such a personal interest in their work, she said. She has been there for nine years, the first seven spent in the drug abuse lab working with squirrel monkeys in cocaine research, her interest fueled by having a drug-addicted friend in college. The personal commitment of Yerkes scientists to their work is something McDonough enjoys most about her job.
"This is one place I can go, and I'm around the best of the best," she said. "There are these brilliant scientists who are very respected, knowledgeable in their fields and dedicated, and then [there are] other research specialists like myself who are very caring with the animals and do quality research without shortcuts--and also the care staff, the vets and vet techs and animal care staff. It sounds corny, but it does have that kind of family atmosphere to it because we're all working together for the same thing.
"At the same time, there's this feeling of being a part of something that's going to make a difference," she added. "There are people who write a check to help find a cancer cure, but I can do more."
McDonough does do more. Through a program called Science by Mail she acts as a pen pal to fourth graders around the country, who are performing and learning from elementary science experiments. She also participates in Women in Science, a program of Atlanta's SciTrek Museum, and she informally visits local schools to talk to kids about careers in science. "It's partly an education thing and partly a motivation thing," she explained. "A lot of kids think about science and tend to imagine some old scary guy in a lab coat, and I don't think I'm anything like that."
Perhaps not old and scary, but McDonough is indeed a self-proclaimed lab rat who loves to sit in her basement Yerkes office, nicknamed by co-workers "the Batcave" ("That would make me Batgirl," she quipped.), and work on monkey cages with her well-maintained box of tools. "I'll be down here taking chambers apart, and [colleagues] come in and I'm up to my elbows in nuts and bolts. If I weren't working here I'd be working in the shop."
Of course, then she wouldn't get to work with her girls. "How many people get to be groomed by a rhesus monkey or have a squirrel monkey sitting on their lap?" McDonough said, popping a banana or cherry or some other primate-incentive-flavored "monkey Sweet-Tart" pellet into her mouth. "Not bad," she added. "I'd work for these."