October 2023

Faculty Highlight

Meet Dr. Chris Varnon, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Behavior Analysis 

Why did you choose to study behavior analysis?

When I was an undergraduate, I knew I liked animals, but I didn’t have a clear direction beyond that. Initially I was a biology major, and I really loved learning about animals and nature from that perspective. It wasn't long before I discovered that I could also study animal behavior in psychology, prompting me to add psychology as a second major. From there I learned about behavior analysis. I was really attracted to the degree which behavior analysis allows us to understand, predict, and control both human and animal behavior. I have stuck with behavior analysis ever since, though I also continue to learn about behavior through biological and other psychological perspectives as well. Although I have my specific areas of interest, my passion lies in understanding all types of behavior across various fields.

What are your main areas of research, and why did you choose those specific areas?

My research interests lie at the intersection of psychology and biology, including the psychological and physiological processes that are conserved across cultures and species. My work falls into the general area of comparative psychology. I am also interested in computational approaches to model behavior, as well as behavioral neuroscience and behavioral pharmacology. I have worked with a wide range of species, from honey bees to horses, in homes, farms, zoos, and the wild. I am fond of many species and topics, including the behavioral ecology of amphibians and reptiles, and the social behavior of birds. Most recently, I have become interested in tropical cockroaches and other invertebrate models of behavior. See my website at CAVarnon.com for more.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Teaching gives me a chance to talk about what I love, and to guide students into having these discussions as well. I find it particularly rewarding when a class evolves into a more conversational dynamic as students begin understanding the subject matter. I also enjoy learning from students, as they share their perspectives on how behavior impacts facets of their lives and professions that might be unfamiliar to me. Teaching advanced courses or subjects that bridge multiple fields is especially exciting, as it constantly pushes me to expand my own knowledge.

What do you hope your students gain from your courses?

I strongly believe that a good understanding of behavior skills equips students with skills that are valuable in everyday life. Every interaction you have, with every person or animal, for the rest of your life, can benefit from an understanding of behavioral processes. I know for many that study behavior analysis, it goes beyond an academic interest and becomes somewhat of a life philosophy. While I don't expect every student to adopt behavior analysis to that extent, I am serious about the potential impact understanding behavior can have. I also value the general education process. Throughout their academic journey, students can acquire indispensable skills, including critical thinking and skepticism. I genuinely hope to inspire students to view the world differently, enabling them to excel in self-advocacy and pursue goals they deem important. There is no situation which education does not improve.

What did you do before pursuing a career in academia, and why did you decide to pursue teaching instead?

I’ve always been a learner and a teacher. I think this is true for many professors.
I never strayed far from academia. My journey started as an undergraduate, moved on to graduate school, and now I'm a professor. I did spend a few years working at Zoos while I was a student, which was another path I considered that was very rewarding.

When you’re not teaching, what do you enjoy doing?

I really like spending time in nature. It could be a sunny field, a dark swamp, or even a cave. I'm drawn to the outdoors, be it day or night. If you pay attention, there is a lot of fun behavior happening out in nature, too.