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A diverse group of faculty, deans and administrators visited the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya. Photo by Susan Hedayati. SBU homepage photo by Pascal Title.

Stony Brook University Seeks to Expand Academic Offerings in the Turkana Basin

Stony Brook University is undertaking an important new initiative to expand its outreach potential in the Turkana Basin, an area in East Africa celebrated for its rich archaeological and paleontological significance. This strategic move reinforces the university’s dedication to interdisciplinary research and also positions the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) at the forefront of global scientific exploration and educational outreach.

Stony Brook serves as the academic base for TBI, founded by noted Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and Stony Brook professor Richard Leakey in 2005 to provide the permanent infrastructure to enable year-round research in this remote area of sub-Saharan Africa, and allows Stony Brook to broaden its academic footprint in this remote region. TBI provides an academic home for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from the United States, Europe, Australasia and Africa.

While research at the TBI has focused on paleontology and paleoanthropology, taking advantage of the unique geography — which provides a source of unprecedented fossil and archaeological evidence for all major stages of human development — Stony Brook seeks to expand the academic disciplines represented in the TBI and to increase collaboration across disciplines through creative partnerships.

It’s these very opportunities that led Executive Vice President and Provost Carl Lejuez to collaborate with TBI Director Lawrence Martin and TBI CEO Dino Martins in leading a visit to the Turkana Basin with representatives from schools and colleges throughout Stony Brook, including the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Business, the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the School of Communication and Journalism, the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, the Renaissance School of Medicine, and the Program in Public Health.

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Photo by Carl Safina.

This visit provided a first-hand look at the environment and surrounding communities and to discuss the ways in which Stony Brook academic units may broaden their presence in the Turkana Basin through TBI and the Turkana Basin field school.

The trip was unprecedented in the number of faculty, deans, and university vice presidents represented, across a diverse set of disciplines, who spent time discussing and reflecting on how they can work together on projects to learn from and to benefit the region.

“The biggest takeaway was how many opportunities there are for all of our faculty and staff to be able to find projects that they can work on there that would support the region and that would have implications for global health and well-being,” said Lejuez. “With the strength of the infrastructure already in place through TBI to support research and outreach efforts, I expect to see great growth in interdisciplinary projects from Stony Brook faculty and staff in the near future.”

Lejuez said the highlight of the trip was seeing such a diverse group of faculty work together to make connections and finding creative ways to partner and collaborate with each other and with the local staff and researchers at TBI.

Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Communication and Journalism (SoCJ) and executive director of the Alda Center for Communicating Science, was inspired by the people and communities who work at TBI. “I see tremendous opportunities for collaboration and partnership between the SoCJ, Alda Center and TBI,”  she said. “The work they are doing deserves the very best communication research and practice. I am eager to find ways for our students and faculty to bring their expertise to the table and to work more closely together in service of Stony Brook University and what it has to bring to the world.”

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Photo by Carl Safina.

College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Andrew Singer was impressed by both the research and challenges of the region. “This was a truly unique experience, getting to see, first hand, the research enterprise in Turkana Basin,” Singer said. “We learned not only about the current research activities at TBI, but also had an opportunity to see some of the many challenges — engineering, societal and geographical — of operating a world-class institute in such a remote region.” Singer added that the group also learned about the people who live in the region and how they and TBI support each other.

Axel Drees, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, noted the opportunity to further research related to climate in the region. “One really must experience these field stations — in the harsh desert environment, in the most remote parts of northern Kenya — to appreciate the value and uniqueness of the research opportunities that could not exist without them,” he said. “The TBI field stations provide our students and faculty with a strong platform for exciting  interdisciplinary exploration and cross-cultural exchange, in particular in areas spanning health care, engineering and social sciences. I find most exciting the opportunities to expand our understanding of climate resilience in one of the hottest environments inhabited by humans year round.”

Lejuez said the trip highlighted the work that keeps Stony Brook at the forefront of anthropological research in the 21st century and the opportunities that will allow Stony Brook to expand work at TBI across a variety of key domains including engineering, economics, and health care. Lejuez began his trip with a visit to one of Stony Brook’s longest running study abroad programs, in Tanzania, which provided him a broader sense of how Stony Brook is positioned to build upon considerable work already happening in East Africa.

“Having now completed visits to see our work in Tanzania and Kenya, and preparing for a trip later this spring to visit Pat Wright’s Centre ValBio in Madagascar, it’s hard for me to imagine that there’s any other university that has such a strength within East Africa,” Lejuez said. “This is an important moment for Stony Brook to think big and leverage those strengths in a thoughtful and more comprehensive manner to support the region and the work done there that has wide ranging implications for the good of society.”

— Beth Squire

The list of faculty and administrators who went on the trip included:

Resit Akcakaya, professor and chair, Ecology and Evolution
Lisa Benz Scott, executive director and professor, Public Health
Judith Brown Clarke, vice president for equity and inclusion, chief diversity officer
Mohammad Delasay Sorkhab, associate professor of operations management, College of Business
Alina Denham, assistant professor, Public Health
Axel Drees, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Bettina Fries, chief, Division of Infectious Diseases
Miguel Garcia-Diaz, interim vice president for research
Susan Hedayati, vice dean for research and professor of medicine
Peter Igarashi, Knapp Dean, Renaissance School of Medicine
Rachel Kidman, associate professor, Public Health
Catherine Kier, professor of clinical pediatrics
Reuben Kline, associate professor, Political Science
Carl Lejuez, executive vice president and provost
Jennifer Levine, senior director of development, Advancement
Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Communication and Journalism, executive director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
Amy Lu, associate professor, Anthropology
Lawrence Martin, TBI director
Lori Repetti, professor, Linguistics
Gabrielle Russo, associate professor, Anthropology
Carl Safina, Endowed Research Chair for Nature and Humanity, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
Shobana Shankar, professor, History
Kristen Shorette, associate professor, Sociology
Andrew Singer, dean, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Pascal Title, assistant professor, Ecology and Evolution
Elizabeth Watson, associate professor, Ecology and Evolution

View a photo gallery of images taken by Susan Hedayati, Carl Safina, Pascal Title, Mohammad Delasay Sorkhab and Laura Lindenfeld:

 

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