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Purdue Global Grad Honored by Animal Behavior Group
Indiana Ag Connection - 07/28/2020

Purdue University Global graduate Megan MacKellar has won the Marian Breland Bailey Award from the Applied Animal Behavior Special Interest Group.

The Marian Breland Bailey Award, presented at the Association for Behavior Analysis International conference, recognizes and promotes research and scholarly activity by students in the applied analysis of animal behavior.

"It is impossible for me to put into words the surprise, joy, honor and gratitude this award means," said MacKellar, who was recognized for her thesis titled "Discrete Trial Training Paired with Behavior Skills Training to Increase Attention with Killer Whales in a Zoological Facility." "The entire process started when my research was accepted as an oral presentation at the ABAI, where it was an honor to not only represent Purdue Global and SeaWorld Orlando but to also showcase SeaWorld's killer whales, trainers and the world-class care we give our whales through positive reinforcement training."

MacKellar's thesis used established behavior analytic techniques to reinstruct animal trainers interacting with killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando on fundamental behavior management.

"SeaWorld uses a behavioral science called operant conditioning, focusing on positive reinforcement training, to care for and interact with animals," said MacKellar, who earned her Master of Science degree in psychology. "Operant conditioning is the foundation of applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is an ethical and effective treatment for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and is endorsed by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The amazing thing about ABA is that it is the science behind the behavior of all animals, human and non-human."

MacKellar presented her thesis poolside of the whales she helps care for, who provided some surprising help.

"I was having technical difficulties, and my advisory team was so gracious to work through the issues. As my SeaWorld team and advisors helped problem-solve, Nalani and Malia, two female whales, stayed close by, watching what was going on," MacKellar said. "They helped calm my nerves and gave a great opportunity for me to share with my professors about their individual personalities."

MacKellar grew up in Atlanta and earned a Bachelor of Science in marine biology and a minor in chemistry from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She started her career with SeaWorld in 2010 in the education department and is currently a senior 1 animal trainer caring for killer whales and birds of prey. In addition to SeaWorld, MacKellar is a registered behavior technician at LifeSkills Behavior Services in Orlando.

MacKellar spoke in high regard of her Purdue Global experience.

"The professors are active in the field and bring that experience into the learning environment," MacKellar said, highlighting thesis committee members Edward Cumella, Meme Hieneman and Susan Wilson. "They understand that many students are working full time and that there is a balancing act of life. Purdue Global's academic advisory team served as a great resource. Anytime that I needed to discuss my academic path or deal with a potential issue, they took the time to listen and thoroughly review my options.

"The project was possible because of Purdue Global and SeaWorld Orlando's willingness to collaborate and collectively step beyond their respective disciplines."

MacKellar has been interested in marine life since she was 4 years old when her family moved to San Antonio and regularly visited SeaWorld there.

"It was because of the experiences at SeaWorld paired with my parents cultivating my interest in animals and the ocean that I fell in love with marine life." MacKellar said. "Today, my passions are building relationships with, caring for, enriching the lives of, and assisting researchers with a greater behavioral and biological understanding of animals, which ultimately leads to the global care of all species."

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