Bringing African researchers together to advance science
For Yale’s David Post, it is the unintended consequence of his research and training project in Africa that may have the most lasting impact.
Post, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, heads a research laboratory that is giving Yale students and African scientists an opportunity to do fieldwork on the complex ecosystems in Kenya. This is just one example of the work being done through the Yale Africa Initiative, an ongoing effort by Yale University to prioritize and expand its commitment to Africa. In addition to closely supporting Yale’s missions of research, teaching, and learning, one of the hallmarks of the Yale Africa Initiative is to create and foster numerous collaborations and partnerships with and between various African institutions.
The Post Laboratory studies complex food web structure and dynamics, interactions between ecology and evolution, conservation and management of aquatic resources, climate change, and the role of mobile consumers in linking ecosystems. While Post Lab work focuses primarily on aquatic systems, it also studies interactions and processes that link aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
The laboratory’s Mara Project — a partnership with the Rosi Lab at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, the National Museums of Kenya, and the Mara Conservancy — examines the effect that both hippopotami and the Serengeti wildebeest migration, the largest overland migration in the world, have upon the Mara River and its ecosystem. Partners work together in developing project ideas and proposals, conducting research in the field, analyzing data and writing manuscripts, and training U.S. and Kenyan scientists.
As The Mara Project continues to evolve, so too has the approach Post and his team have taken to create connections and productive relationships among various organizations. In particular, they have developed a short course program with East African and Kenyan scholars. The short course incorporates a mixture of classroom lectures, discussion, and field research focused on The Mara Project. For many participants, this is their first experience in this type of program.
Since the establishment of the short course program in 2016, Post says he has seen three valuable things emerge from the initiative: two tied directly to the rationale for creating it in the first place, and a third, unintended consequence.
First, the program was originally established to bring Yale students to Africa and deeply embed them into actual field research on the continent. The student participants have the opportunity to learn firsthand about Kenya, wildlife conservation, and the nation’s, and they are able to work and interact directly with Kenyan students and researchers.
This is an aspect of the program that Post would like to see expand: “While the program is an amazing learning experience for Yale students, it is also quite expensive, and so a limited opportunity. I am looking for ways to expand upon this exchange program to not only bring Yale students to Africa, but also bring African students to Yale.”
Second, the short course program has created an opportunity for Yale to provide East African scholars with advanced training that may not always be available from their home institutions. In particular, it can be cost-prohibitive for Kenyan students to go to the field for hands-on training, and this course provides those opportunities.
“We were able to teach cutting-edge science to them through both classroom and field-based approaches, so this is exposing the next generation of East African scholars to advanced concepts and methods in their field,” said Post. “It’s the primary reason why we created the program.”
As for the third, unintended benefit of the program, Post said: “When we gathered students and representatives from the National Museums of Kenya, Kenyan Water Resources Management Authority, University of Eldoret, and Egerton University for our short course, we were surprised that many of the participants were meeting one another for the first time. Despite considerable overlap in research interests, many of them had little or no association with one another.
“Once we recognized that the participants were not already communicating and collaborating, we worked hard to encourage interactions among the participants,” said Post. He created time in the evenings, before and after meals, for participants to share their own research and get questions and ideas from others, which often spawned long, spirited discussions.
“We hadn’t consciously set out to do this, but in making this a priority, we hope to build trust, forge close working relationships, and establish mutually beneficial collaborations and partnerships among the participants,” said Post.
The Post Lab is planning additional short courses, and the scientists hope to expand the reach of the program by tapping into the networks of previous participants.
Amanda Subalusky, a postdoctoral scientist who has helped design and teach the short courses, says, “One of our primary goals is to increase the opportunities for students from both Yale and Kenyan universities to interact with and learn from one another. These experiences can be formative for young scholars in nurturing their awareness and appreciation of the global nature of science in the 21st century, and can open the doors for more international exchanges in their future.”
Post adds: “We believe there is a broad value in creating an ever-increasing web of connections among scholars and scientists in order to encourage more sharing and ultimately speed up the pace of discovery. Hopefully as this program evolves we can achieve just that to benefit everyone.”