Assistant Professor of Biology Robyn Crook wins competitive early-career grant

White and brown spotted octopus

An algae octopus (Abdopus aculeatus), one of the species Assistant Professor of Biology Robyn Crook studies. Photo by Robyn Crook.

The NSF CAREER award will fund Crook’s research on how octopus’ brains change in response to injury

Robyn Crook didn’t start off loving octopuses. At first, she approached the creatures with the detached fascination of an evolutionary biologist: an interest in how these mollusks, more closely related to oysters than they are to humans, somehow ended up with incredibly complex brains. They won her over eventually, though.

“They’re fascinating animals — they’re so wonderful to work with and so interesting,” she said. “Every one’s different.”

Assistant Professor of Biology Robyn Crook

Now the San Francisco State University assistant professor of Biology has won a $675,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to open a new frontier in the study of cephalopods — a group that includes octopuses, squids and cuttlefish — and to see what their minds can teach us about our own. San Francisco State ranks second in the CSU system for the prestigious CAREER awards, with faculty members earning 18 since the program began in 1996.

Much of Crook’s research since arriving at SF State has revolved around the concept of pain. It’s obvious when an animal reacts to something that hurts them, but it’s far harder to understand how they actually perceive the moment when that happens. “That’s basically where we live our lives in this research lab,” Crook said. “It’s this very difficult area of trying to interpret what the animal feels.”

It’s a question that Crook is invested in both as an evolutionary biologist and as someone who cares about the well-being of the animals she studies. A study she published in March suggests that octopuses do experience pain and find it unpleasant, which is fueling a growing international movement calling for better regulations governing how these animals are cared for in laboratories, aquariums and fisheries. Those calls are particularly urgent in the U.S., where cephalopods have no protections in research labs.

“The work that we’re doing in my lab is, I would say, the prime informer of those nascent regulatory efforts,” she said. “Our hope is to keep that going, to gather more evidence about not just what cephalopods feel but how we can relieve any suffering we might find.”

The new CAREER award will fund Crook’s research on a different but related conundrum. Pain has a biological purpose: It makes us avoid things that cause us harm. What’s less clear is the purpose of chronic pain, which lasts long after the wound is healed and the lesson learned. Crook wants to broaden how this question is studied in order to understand why such lingering pain may have evolved and whether long-lasting reactions to harm may actually benefit animals in nature. 

Crook plans to study how octopuses that have been injured alter their behavior when trying to attract mates, and she’ll also look at changes in the animals’ brains that go along with those new behaviors. It’s rare that injury is studied outside the context of how animals avoid predators in this way, Crook says. But doing so is essential for understanding the bigger picture of pain and may even provide insights into why reactions like chronic pain and PTSD exist in the first place.

“Our hope is that with this work we’ll be able to change the way that everybody thinks about pain — not just animal behaviorists, not just medical scientists, not just doctors — and really bring a new perspective on what pain is for,” she explained. “Why is it there? How did it evolve? And how can we think about it differently?’”