Near the fireplace, flanked by shelves packed with hundreds of classic books about nature and ecology, Princeton Professor Dan Rubenstein reflects on Mpala — a 5,000-acre multidisciplinary field laboratory that sits on a 50,000-acre reserve in central Kenya — as a place that is incomparably beneficial to students, especially those pursuing science.
“This is Princeton — it’s got the specialness of Princeton in an international setting,” said Rubenstein, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB). “Mpala is a lens for seeing the world in a different way. Students grow and become much more worldly, and that is the real purpose of an international education. But it also gives students the chance to understand and learn how to do science.”
Rubenstein has based most of his research — which largely focuses on exploring how wildlife and livestock interact — out of Mpala since 1990. As an educator, he wants students to experience the same natural richness of the land — and the close relationships that Kenyans have with the land — that has been the linchpin of his work.
The High Meadows Environmental Institute sponsors an eight-week internship at Mpala for first- and second-year students. Interns teach in local schools and engage in hands-on ecological and conservation projects in nearby pastoralist communities. Juniors and seniors can participate in the “field semester” at Mpala during which they study the ecology and behavior of wildlife, sustainable land use and the functioning of savanna ecosystems. On average, students who spend a semester in the field perform a half-grade higher on their senior thesis than their classmates, Rubenstein said.
“It’s total immersion,” Rubenstein said. “There are fewer distractions, and I think that allows students more focus and to grow more intellectually. Mpala provides a luxury of time that really is what’s needed to break down barriers.”
In addition, juniors who major in ecology and evolutionary biology can spend a semester conducting field research at Mpala with a third-year graduate student from the University of Nairobi. Those students often return to Mpala to work on their senior thesis, drawing upon years of large-scale ecological research conducted by professors from Princeton and other institutions.
The theme of combining practical experience and scholarship carries over into Rubenstein’s on-campus courses. For one of the courses he teaches, “Life on Earth: Chaos and Clockwork of Biological Design,” which is required for EEB majors, students attend two lectures per week, each one culminating in a group thought experiment. In addition, a weekly lab session includes field research and trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Rubenstein hopes to impart upon students his view of the world as full of endless questions and exciting answers that are accessible to scientists with wonderment for the natural world. After 35 years of studying zebras and wild horses, Rubenstein still brings his rattling old Range Rover to a halt when he spies a herd of Grévy's zebras — the world's largest wild horse and Rubenstein's research niche — filing through the dense brush at Mpala.
“I'll never know everything about Grévy’s,” he said during one stop. “There’s always something different to see and something new to learn.”
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