AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas at Austin is currently holding its first-ever Texas Science Festival.

The virtual fest has a fully-stocked schedule covering a wide variety of topics from women in STEM, galaxies and cosmos, to bees, snakes, COVID-19 and love.

The latter is the focus of Professor Dr. Steven Phelps, particularly the “science of love.”

“I’m really excited to get people to think about the bonds in their lives,” Dr. Phelps said.

Dr. Lisa Neff (left) and Dr. Steven Phelps (right) will speak together about the “Science of Love” at the Texas Science Festival (The University of Texas at Austin)

Dr. Phelps is an evolutionary neurobiologist at UT Austin’s Department of Integrative Biology. His lab is interested in the evolution of complex behavior and brain function.

“We study it in unusual species or what I like to call ‘exotic rodents’,” Dr. Phelps said.

One rodent, the prairie vole, is Phelp’s focus at the science festival.

“We study how it is they fall in love,” he said. “What I mean by love, in this case, is that males and females form bonds after they’ve been with each other and those bonds can last a lifetime.”

He’ll be speaking about their biology of bonding and attachment. He found prairie voles get very stressed when they’re apart from one another.

“If you take two prairie voles and separate them, and subject one of them to very mild shocks… when you put them back into the cage, their mate will groom them and in the process of the interactions with their mate, their stress levels will go back down and you can see that in their hormones… So, the bond within the prairie voles seems to function a lot like bonds in humans and a lot like bonds in other species.”

Opinions about the pandemic and bonding

Dr. Phelps said not all animals have bonds, including those closely related to us, such as gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.

The latter lives mostly alone aside from mating, he said.

“They don’t have a social life. They don’t have a drive to be together the way that we do. That is part of their biology and is part of the way their brains are matched to their strategy of being in the world. For us, those bonds are a really big part of our strategy.”

He’s very interested in how and why bonds form and what they do for us, including implications for human health.

“Loneliness, for example, is just absolutely devastating. The perception of loneliness, of being socially isolated, is as damaging to your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. We’re really built to be a social species and I think in this time of the pandemic, we’re more isolated from each other. We’re fortunate, many of us are fortunate, to be together with our loved ones, but of course, not everybody is and I think that understanding why it’s so hard for people to be completely alone during this time is just one example of how understanding love and understanding the brain’s need for love can help us understand something about how we act in the world, how our social lives impact our health, and our happiness and our well-being.”

Dr. Phelps said.

Online interactions are a big part of our lives now during the pandemic, including Zoom calls where we can hear each other’s voices and faces — “a huge part of our sense of social connection,” Dr. Phelps said.

But what about physical interaction and consoling?

“Those pieces are missing from this kind of interaction,” Dr. Phelps said. “I’m not alarmist about what this is gonna do for kids growing up now. I think that it will impact their social development but I’m not worried about the isolation in children in the context of having a healthy home life — I think that’s really the most important thing. But obviously, this is a stressful time and a lot of us don’t necessarily have a healthy home life or are struggling now financially and for other reasons, and I think those are going to be the major impacts.”

Overall, Dr. Phelps hopes listeners see bonds and relationships in a new light from a biological perspective.

“All of the relationships we have with one another are not just meaningful but they’re kind of rooted in the history of our bodies — that they’re rooted in biology and they didn’t have to look the way they do — But our social nature is in the central part of who we are as a species, it’s in the central part of our success, and it’s worth taking a step back and seeing the familiar bond or relationship.”

Texas Science Festival logo (The University of Texas at Austin)

The Texas Science Festival began on Feb. 16 and runs till March 26. Dr. Phelps, among many professors, is presenting at the festival. He will speak alongside Dr. Lisa Neff on March 23 from noon to 12:45 p.m. Dr. Neff is an associate professor at UT Austin’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences.

The festival is free and open to science enthusiasts everywhere. You can register on the festival’s main website, as well as learn more about the variety of topics on the fest’s schedule webpage.