Kim Launier ’98
Production assistant, ABC News
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 74, No. 1, Fall 2002
Many people talk to animals, but Kim Launier has had conversations with them. During her sophomore year at Bowdoin, Kim applied for a summer internship at Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory (KBMML) in Hawaii, where they study bottle nosed dolphins and employ a form of communication called gestural language. Through a series of approximately 60 hand signals, the dolphins at KBMML understand nouns, verbs, direct and indirect objects, and comprehend combinations and meanings of some 2,000 sentences. "The dolphins at KBMML readily understand that to change the order of the words in a sentence is to change the meaning of that sentence," Kim explains. "For example, 'the dog bit the cat,' is very different from 'the cat bit the dog.' These dolphins can discern the subtleties of language structure. A typical sentence during a research session might be, 'Left basket right Frisbee fetch,' meaning fetch the Frisbee on your right and put it inside the basket on your left. Gestural language is an invaluable tool to convey meaningful representations of ideas."
Kim became interested in dolphin cognition during her senior year in high school. In order to graduate, all seniors had to complete sixty hours of research on a topic of choice beyond the normal curriculum, and present the findings to a panel at the end of the term. "Rather than go to the library and read textbooks, I spent two months fundraising the money to be a participant on the Earthwatch
expedition, 'Humpbacks Off Hawaii,' Kim says. She spent two weeks with scientists at KBMML studying humpback whale populations and their behaviors off the Big Island of Hawaii, and she was hooked.
Not only did Kim spend her Bowdoin sophomore summer back at KBMML studying bottle nosed dolphins there, but her entire junior year away, and a full year after graduation. "I know that as a result of the research being done at facilities like KBMML, the public certainly possesses a better understanding of dolphin intelligence and, hopefully, a greater compassion for the fragility of their existence in our shared oceans."
Back on the mainland now, Kim works for ABC News in New York City on the news magazine, Primetime Thursday, where her special language skills occasionally come in handy researching animal-related stories and interviewing experts in the field. She has plans to integrate her passion for animals and exploration with her new career in the media, perhaps as a network correspondent with a specialization in science stories.
"My experience working and living among the most educated dolphins on the planet was a privilege," Kim says. "To communicate with a dolphin via gestural language is to understand that these animals have the capacity to express their needs. It's a riveting knowledge that humans are not alone in this world."