The Essentials: Dustin Rubenstein

Around the Quads

Every spring Associate Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) Dustin Rubenstein leaves behind the Columbia Lions for actual lions as the director of the Program in Tropical Biology and Sustainability, leading a small number of students on a semester abroad in Kenya. Rubenstein created the Kenya program in 2012, in conjunction with the Office of Global Programs (OGP) and Princeton. Rubenstein also teaches in “Frontiers of Science,” is the founding director of the Center for Integrative Animal Behavior and is on the faculty in the Program of Neurobiology and Behavior at CUMC. He spoke with CCT about science as a current event, living with wildlife and how Africa is for him a family affair.

A man sitting on a park bench

JILL SHOMER

Rubenstein grew up in New Jersey; his father teaches at Princeton and is also a scientist in the field of animal behavior. As a child, Rubenstein traveled the world on school breaks and summer vacations as his father did field work in exotic locales, including in Africa. “It was a good lifestyle,” he says.

He earned a B.A. from Dartmouth in 1999. As an undergrad he was interested in using scientific tools from different disciplines to answer biological questions — in his case, applying techniques from stable isotope geochemistry to study migratory birds. After earning a Ph.D. from Cornell in 2006, Rubinstein joined Columbia as an E3B assistant professor in 2009.

In “Frontiers of Science,” Rubenstein teaches first-years how to approach a problem, analyze it, draw conclusions and communicate that information. “Those are skills that will be important in whatever they do, and I want them to have an understanding of how science plays a role in their everyday lives,” he says. “Frontiers of Science does a good job of teaching students to critique what they see and to recognize what fact is.”

With science and fact under fire in our country, Rubenstein is concerned. “We’re suddenly in a period where facts are disputable, and it makes me think about my teaching. We can’t live in a society where this is acceptable; we as faculty have to teach students appreciation for the scientific process. We will need to think about these issues given what might happen over the next four years.”

The Kenya program grew out of a course Rubenstein helped create as a graduate student. He initiated the semester-long program in 2012 at Columbia because he wanted to give students the immersive experience of field work, but in New York City they were limited to parks and the American Museum of Natural History. “Two or three weeks [on breaks] isn’t enough time to get a feel for the culture, so when we created the program we saw the value in doing a full semester abroad,” he says. Students apply for the program through OGP; three to five College and GS students make the trip each spring, though Rubenstein hopes more will decide to go in the future.

What he likes most about teaching is interacting with the students, and the field courses definitely provide that opportunity, he says. “I live with the students 24 hours a day for a month in very intense surroundings. These are the students I keep in touch with the most. I see them on social media and on campus when they come back for reunions and events.”

His whole family spends time in Kenya. His father teaches a class in the program and his mother runs an afterschool conservation club program in the community. His children, ages 5 and 7, join him on summer research trips and play with the local children.

Rubenstein primarily studies birds, in particular the superb starling, which lives in large and complex social groups that interact much like humans. In the field he studies how the environment shapes the starling’s behavior, physiology and genetics.

Interaction with wildlife is a big draw for the Kenya program. “What makes Africa a great place to do field courses is the density and the diversity of the big game; the students get really excited about that,” Rubenstein says. “We’re there to explore the landscape and conduct scientifi c projects rather than to find animals, but if we get a radio that there are lions or wild dogs nearby we might drop what we’re doing to look for them.”

Animal sightings aren’t always optional. “There are elephants and buffalos all around so you have to be aware,” he says. “We stay at a field station that has an electric fence around it, and when we’re out we always have Kenyan scouts with us for safety. We’re living with the wildlife, and the students get to understand that.”

Even after so many visits to Africa, Rubenstein still gets a charge out of seeing the local fauna. “It’s always fun. I’ve seen everything but there are some animals I’d like to see more. A honey badger is very rare; I always tell the students that if they can find a honey badger they’ll get an A,” he says with a laugh. “No one will ever see one.”

— Jill C. Shomer