This is us: Marwa Kavelaars

June 19, 2024

The scientist Marwa Kavelaars is a biologist specializing in exploring animal behavior and movement ecology. At the Center for Adaptive Rationality, she expands her research interests to include human decision-making. In this interview, she discusses her work with Finnish ice fishers to study human foraging behavior. In the "This is Us" series, colleagues share insights into their work and motivations.

One of your research topics at the Center for Adaptive Rationality is human foraging behavior. What fascinates you about this topic?  

Marwa Kavelaars: For me, as a biologist, it is most exciting to observe animals, or nowadays humans, in their real-world environment. Before I joined the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, I mostly worked on bird behaviour. Using small GPS trackers, I studied their movement patterns, with a special focus on their foraging behaviour. In my postdoc at the Center for Adaptive Rationality, I have a similar approach, but now I study human foraging, which enables me to dive a bit deeper: it is a perfect testbed for human cognition, allowing me to study decision-making processes outside the lab. Ultimately, I am interested in how people use and integrate different streams of information when making decisions: from prior information that they have on the environment, to the information they gain from sampling their environment, and social information from people around them.  

You were on research stay in Finland to collect data for your current research. Could you tell us a bit more? 

Marwa Kavelaars: In this postdoc project, I focus on ice fishers in Finland. Ice fishing is a human foraging activity that began thousands of years ago, and although no longer used for sustenance, it is a cultural tradition in the northern regions of the world. People not only leisurely roam the frozen lakes by themselves in their free hours, but also seriously compete in large scale events. These events gave us a way in to developing an experimental setup in which experienced ice fishers can move freely in their natural surroundings, while we can create different social settings to see whether foraging decisions are made differently in, for example, competitive and cooperative groups. At the same time, we are able to follow every movement into detail via smart watches (where are they going?) and head cameras (what are they doing?).  

What did your daily routine look like? 

Marwa Kavelaars: During the field work, we stayed in a little cabin at one of the lakes near Joensuu. We needed to drive to different lakes every day for the competitions. In general, the conditions were not too bad, but sometimes the road from our cabin to the main road needed to be cleared so we do not get stuck in the snow. So, we tried to leave early, arriving at the competition lake around 8:00. When the participants arrived, they first needed to fill in consent forms and surveys. Then we deployed them with head cameras and smart watches, and after a quick briefing from our Finnish collaborator, the competitions started. When they came back, we weighed their fish and announced the winners. Back in the cabin we needed to download all data from the smartwatches and cameras, and prepared everything for the next day. If we still had some energy left, one of us prepared the fire for the sauna so we could warm up and relax after a long day outside, and then it was off to bed again. 

What experiences did you bring home? 

Marwa Kavelaars: I found it very special to become part of this Finnish community for a few weeks. It is quite a tight community; most of these ice fishers have known each other for decades. Our research team, led by Ralf Kurvers, has been organising competitions for a few years now, and the ice fishers really seem to enjoy it and come back every year. In the morning, there is even a guy that comes to sell bait and, in the afternoon, there is a food stand with hotdogs, coffee or hot chocolate. Even though we don’t speak each other’s language, we have start to become more familiar with each other. I sometimes wonder, if they think it is a bit funny that we (as an international team) organise these competitions for our research, but it feels like they appreciate that we study this activitythat is so deeply engrained in their culturein such detail.  

When did you realize you wanted to go into science and what advice would you give your younger self about starting a career in science?  

Marwa Kavelaars: Ever since I was a kid, I enjoyed spending time outside. I was always observing animals and trying to understand what they were doing. I followed this curiosity throughout my life, which resulted in a scientific career, and, still every day, I enjoy that learning new things is part of my job.  

The advice I would give to my younger self is to actively search for mentors or role models that I could identify with. I think academia would benefit from more diversity, and I am glad there are opportunities like this ‘This is us’-series to make women in science more visible, so that the next generation knows that there is also a place for them in this academic world.  

What do you appreciate about the Max Planck Community?  

Marwa Kavelaars: I think it’s a very inspirational and intellectually stimulating environment. What I enjoyed most since joining the MPIB, is the incredibly collaborative setting. I am working together with biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and so on. I think that bringing together researchers with different backgrounds and the variety of expertise creates a synergy that adds a deeper layer to the projects we carry out.  

Marwa has recently been selected by the German Research Foundation (DFG) for the Walter-Benjamin Programme. She will continue studying the ice fishers, in collaboration with the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, to investigate how social context influences human decision-making into more detail.

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