Stanford graduate students learn to mentor undergraduates through hands-on training in remote African ecosystems

Stanford students are traveling through Africa to learn effective mentoring and field techniques, on an expedition designed to provide new perspectives on ethical ecotourism, the applications of novel technology and defining meaningful collaborations in developing countries.

For the last few weeks, researchers and students from Stanford University have spent their nights watching wild dogs and hyenas and waking in the morning to the chirps of bats and the grunts of hippos. Making their way through the Okavango Delta in Botswana, members of Stanford’s Hadly Lab and Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, along with an undergraduate class from University of Illinois are immersed in first-hand experiential learning about research, culture, conservation and science communication.

Jasper Ridge directors Elizabeth Hadly and Anthony Barnosky are leading the Stanford students. In her first blog about their journey, Hadly, who is also the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in environmental biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, said this trip is “part of our mission to connect science, education, communication, humanities and community outreach for students in our changing world.”

While there, the graduate students and postdocs are learning how to mentor undergraduates in a field setting, and testing potential tools for a miniaturized, low-cost field kit that would enable biological research in remote locations. Members of the Jasper Ridge group have also been meeting with local organizations and governments in several countries – including Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – to establish potential partnerships for future research.

Telling tales from their work and travels on the Jasper Ridge blog, the group has documented sightings of lions, wild dogs, hyenas, elephants, bats and hundreds of other species, learning along the way from local guides, Gareth Flemix and Bayei tribesman Mothusi, whose decades of experience provided access to places far off the beaten path. Through traversing some 500 miles, mostly on two-rut roads, camping where leopards roamed next to the tents, presenting and listening to fireside lectures and conversations with local researchers and residents, the students have gained new perspectives on human-wildlife conflict, ethical ecotourism, how to work as a collaborative team and what it means to balance multiple objectives while still conserving biodiversity in developing nations.

A dual mission

The group’s work during this journey combines projects related to two grants. The first is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor grant given to Hadly to support her vision for immersive undergraduate science education. With this support, Hadly is bringing together students across disciplines to learn from each other during shared field work in extraordinary places, particularly countries not visited by other Stanford programs.

“My overarching goal for the whole student body,” said Hadly in a Stanford article about the HHMI grant, “is that they’ll understand and appreciate, in a deep way, why a diversity of topics, people, thought leaders, cultures and skill sets are basically the way that we have to approach the future of the planet.”

The second grant, called “Out of the Box and Into the Cloud,” is from the National Science Foundation to support development of a field kit at Jasper Ridge that is constructed of low-cost components and is self-sufficient in terms of energy, water purification and waste treatment. This “pop-up” kit would be adaptable to various geographic and cultural settings and enable biology research – recording sounds, weather, biodiversity, genomics and water and soil chemistry – anywhere.

Hadly noted that, “Immersing students in these remote environments is essential to understanding the issues that must be overcome to empower people across the globe to collaborate more easily.”

This type of experience also enhances the students themselves: they are painting, writing poetry, learning natural history and all the while they are gaining new appreciation for the environmental, cultural and historical contexts that can be hard to imagine from afar, such as lack of access to running water, electricity or replacement parts.

Forming relationships

Simon Morgan, a Jasper Ridge research associate, and Jordana Meyer, a graduate student in the Hadly lab conducting research at Jasper Ridge, were also leading a University of Illinois contingent of undergraduates and got a head start on the rest of the group, in order to meet with non-governmental organizations, government officials and national park managers in several countries. They discussed the illegal wildlife and bushmeat trade, gauged interest in bringing the pop-up field kits to African national parks and explored possible applications of genomic tools that are being developed both at Jasper Ridge and in the Program for Conservation Genomics, which is part of the Stanford Center for Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genomics.

“We found synergies with each and every group with the research we are doing and I feel that one of our biggest challenges going forward is going to be navigating our way through the myriad of important and relevant opportunities to ensure that our efforts are as widespread and impactful as possible,” wrote Morgan in one of his blog posts.

Meyer and Morgan also met up with Stanford researcher Caitlin O’Connor-Rodwell while in Etosha National Park in Namibia. O’Connor-Rodwell, an adjunct professor department of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at the School of Medicine, has worked in the park for more than 20 years on her groundbreaking research on elephant bonding, family dynamics, behavior and communication. She too said that the pop-up lab concept could be valuable for her research, which takes place in an extremely remote environment.

Soon, the group will leave their camp and the African continent but will use what they learned in the bush to continue to enrich teaching, discovery, and capacity-building through future field experiences once they return to Stanford.

Hadly is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a fellow at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health. Barnosky is also a professor (research) of biology.