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Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins

Dar es Salaam & Tarangire field site, Tanzania

Faculty biography - Memuna Khan

Memuna Khan first thought about visiting Africa when she started reading Ranger Rick as a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York.  The magazine instilled in her a love of nature and a yearning for outdoor adventure.  Later, as a biology major at the University of Chicago, she checked data for errors that was collected on a wild population of yellow baboons and imagined being in Kenya herself.   Since then, she has had a few adventures in exotic and not so exotic places and has handled many exotic samples (milk from Juan Fernandez fur seals and baboon feces from Kenya).  She is currently an associate professor in the biology department at Ripon College.

Not surprisingly, she was forever changed by a Field Ecology course as an undergraduate that took her far from campus.  In sunny Florida, not quite as far as Africa, her group studied cattle egrets.  They have an African connection because a few individuals flew off course and ended up in the US in 1941.  This field course cemented her decision to pursue a career in biology that involved working with wild populations.  Travelling further afield on Hawaii she camped in the rainforest and studied the endangered Hawaiian crow, ‘Alala. 

Memuna showing students an adult male bluebird.

Memuna’s yearning for adventure then took her to the hot, sticky, and buggy long-leaf pine forests and golf courses of North Carolina to observe, band, and measure circulating hormones in the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  Her dissertation examined the evolution of helping behavior in the cooperatively breeding Red-cockaded Woodpecker by looking at behavioral and physiological variables (Ph.D. 1999, Virginia Tech).  Her work showing that future indirect benefits (genes shared between relatives) play a large role in maintaining the expression of helping behavior in this species was published in Behavioral Ecology in Sociobiology.  That reproductive hormones (testosterone) and parental hormones (prolactin) showed similar patterns in non-breeding male helpers and male breeders was published in Hormones and Behavior. 

She could practically smell Africa when she took a postdoctoral position at Princeton University in the lab of Jeanne Altmann.  Her mission to start an endocrine lab to measure steroid hormones in yellow baboon feces was successful (yes, you can measure all sorts of things in feces!) and resulted in a paper “A Matter of Time: evaluating the storage of fecal samples for steroid analysis” in the journal General and Comparative Endocrinology.  Her work on the excrement of a charismatic African mammal was fulfilling.  She played a role in determining that among female baboons fecal stress hormones were highest during the dry season and were consistently elevated when the average maximum temperatures were high.

Memuna's hand on the K-T boundary, which marks a mass extinction 65 million years ago, during an ACM FaCE workshop in Italy.

Recently, Memuna’s outdoor adventures take her along roads and golf courses in central Wisconsin to study the Eastern Bluebird.  She and her students study the factors influencing the decision of Eastern Bluebird pairs to attempt a second nest after the first nest successfully produces fledglings.  They are examining the factors of food availability, weather, and competition with other species for nest boxes.  Occasionally she gets nostalgic for her post-doctoral days and collects fecal samples from willing donors.  In her lab she has successfully measured fecal steroids in adult and nestling samples and is interested in examining how these hormones correlate with begging behavior, growth, and aggression.

She teaches Vertebrate Zoology, Ornithology, Evolution, and Scientific Writing at Ripon College when she’s not chasing bluebirds. Memuna is not shy to traveling and is eager to add Tanzania to her Facebook list of countries.  Since 1996 she has visited Russia, Indonesia, and Italy with her husband, a historian. Trips to England and Germany have infected her two children, a son and daughter, with the travel bug.

Additional information can be found on her Ripon College faculty profile page.

Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins

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Julia Varnergardner Being abroad taught me so many things about other people (my host family, my professors, and my new friends) as well as myself. I learned how to make friends easily and get myself from one place to the next with only the help I could offer myself. Friendships made in Tanzania were fast and strong despite whatever cultural differences we may have had. The ACM Tanzania program was perfect for me because I was able to gain credit for my biology major, while pursuing other passions as well. I studied new subjects, such as anthropology and human evolution, and Swahili (which I never before knew could be such a fun experience). The language aspect of the program was really wonderful because Swahili is a beautiful language and knowing it helped me to connect more with local people. I came into the country with wide-open expectations and that got me a long way. Without having any preconceptions I was able to become an entirely new person in Tanzania. I learned the meaning of confidence and patience and friendliness. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Tanzania and my experiences there with affection and I would love so much to be able to go back one day.

—Julia Varnergardner, Tanzania, Fall 2009

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