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Mpala on Film

Research in rural Kenya provides a unique experience for Princeton undergraduate students

By Alexandra Jones

Over the summer, 15 undergraduates slept in tents; learned in the field from University faculty, local farmers and scientists; and made their own documentaries during a PIIRS Global Seminar at the Mpala Research Centre.

The center is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and this summer’s course — the Holly and Henry Wendt, Class of 1955, Global Seminar “Documentary Filmmaking in Kenya: Techniques in Visual Storytelling on Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation” — brought students to the location to explore ways that media can be used to communicate scientific concepts. The seminar was co-taught by renowned wildlife filmmaker Katie Carpenter ’79 and Daniel Rubenstein, Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and director of the University’s program in environmental studies.

The students conceived, shaped and produced their own short films in teams that included Kenyan students from local universities — combining their strengths, learning from each other and resolving creative tensions and cultural differences on their own.

“I learned that you cannot accomplish something by yourself the way that you can accomplish it with other people,” says Claudia Humphrey ‘22, who plans to study international and public policy after her experience in Kenya. “It made me really appreciate teamwork.”

In their film “Virginia,” Humphrey and her team examined the tensions between wildlife and people through the story of a smallholder farmer growing subsistence crops to put her three children through school, while grappling with the problems caused by encroaching wildlife and climate change. Before filming, the students worked on her farm for a day, which gave them perspective and helped them tell Virginia’s story.

“It was shocking, the amount of work she did every single day. It took us three times as long to do stuff that she did by herself, and there were four of us trying to do it,” says Humphrey.

The interdisciplinary nature of this Global Seminar awoke a drive in students to share their work with the world in new ways. Ingrid Koester ’21, a molecular biology major, was eager to add filmmaking fundamentals to her skill set. Her team’s documentary, “Guardians of the Grasslands,” highlights Mpala’s relationship with the surrounding communities by following reserve ranger Ramato Manyaas, whose job involves protecting wildlife and managing the safety of students, researchers and community members.

After Mpala, Koester has felt a shift in how she approaches biology as she plans her career path.

“Being a biology major, I always thought I would do something further in STEM or something research-based,” she says. “But this program has shown me that being creative and collaborative is something that I really value.”

Celebrating 25 Years of Mpala

Located in the heart of Laikipia Country in central Kenya, the Mpala Research Centre (MRC) spans 48,000 acres of conservation lands managed by the University in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Mpala Wildlife Foundation. Not only does the MRC provide undergraduate and graduate students with unique learning experiences, but it also offers unparalleled multidisciplinary research and teaching opportunities for faculty and scholars from around the world.

“Mpala is one of the leading field-based research centers in Africa and a unique location to study topics like climate change, public health, conservation, sustainable development and genomics,” says Aly Kassam-Remtulla, vice provost for international affairs and operations (acting). “It offers students and scholars from Princeton — and dozens of other institutions within Kenya and across the globe — a base from which to pursue research on the frontiers of new knowledge. It also has the intimacy of Princeton in an international setting, which allows students to blossom as researchers and global citizens.”

As the MRC celebrates its 25th anniversary, the University plans to enrich and expand its partnership with the center and the surrounding communities. “We are thrilled to be celebrating 25 years of partnership with Mpala,” says Kassam-Remtulla, who chairs the board of trustees of the center. “We look forward to the next quarter century in which we will expand the number and range of Princeton scholars engaged in research, teaching and service at Mpala; broaden our engagement with African scientists and communities; and deepen our investment in addressing the most acute problems facing humanity.”

In “By the Horns,” students highlight the plight of pastoral herders, who have been tending their livestock on the Kenyan landscape for over 1,000 years, but whose way of life is threatened by political conflict and climate change. Stav Bejerano ’22, Chaya Holch ’22, Jesus Martinez ’21, Fiona Tande (Daystar University)

“Chasing Queens” illuminates the delicate balance of Mpala’s food web through the eyes of field researchers studying butterflies. Kailie McGeoy ’21, Irene Munyoki (Moi University), Tina Stanley ’22, Lexi Weger ’22

In “Guardians of the Grasslands,” students profile an Mpala ranger tasked with managing the safety of students, researchers and community members. Nicolas Chae ’21, Ingrid Koester ’21, John Maende (Multimedia University of Kenya), Lauren Olson ’22

“Maji” explores water scarcity in rural Africa and the competition for this precious natural resource from both people and animals. Sam Cryan ’22, John Kunga (Multimedia University of Kenya), Maria Russo ’22, Austin Wang ‘20

“Virginia” tells the story of Virginia Nyambura, a woman growing subsistence crops to put her three children through school. She grapples with the problems caused by encroaching wildlife and climate change. Bes Arnaout ’20, Claudia Humphrey ’22, Olivia Kusio ’21, Felixie Laurens (independent filmmaker)