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For Biologist Memuna Khan, Creativity and Hard Work Are Keys to Field Projects

For Biologist Memuna Khan, Creativity and Hard Work Are Keys to Field Projects January 25, 2013
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“I’ll be the one who keeps them on their toes and encourages them to take that extra step, the one who says ‘OK, what’s the point of this? Does everything connect?’ I’ll be keeping them on task, no matter what the project is.”

Memuna KhanMemuna Khan

Those are the words of Ripon College professor Memuna Khan, as she talked about what she expects to be doing this fall, when she will supervise students on their independent practicum projects as Visiting Faculty Director of ACM’s Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins program.

A veteran field biologist, Khan takes an enthusiastic, practical – and always engaging – approach to research and working with students. In Tanzania, she plans to help students tap into their creativity as they tackle their independent projects and make the most of the unique field experience the program offers.

As Director, Khan will teach the Research Methods course, supervise the students’ independent practicum projects, lead field trips and the six-week field camp in Tarangire National Park, and oversee the program. The curriculum also includes instruction in Kiswahili – the national language of Tanzania – and courses in Human Evolution and Ecology of the Maasai Ecosystem taught by professors from the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM).

In May 2012, Khan received Ripon’s May Bumby Severy Award for Teaching Excellence. Along with her obvious rapport with students, the courses she teaches on campus – such as scientific writing and evolution – are right on target for the program. Khan also advises about 15 students each semester in their senior thesis projects or other independent studies.

Memuna Khan with studentsMemuna Khan with students during a research project on Eastern bluebirds.

“With my evolution and animal behavior background, I can be useful to both biology and anthropology [students],” she said. “In scientific writing, the basics are the same no matter what their major is – designing a question, [and then] designing a study that can adequately test that question.”

Typically, the Tanzania Program draws students with eclectic academic interests. While anthropology, biology, and environmental studies are most often represented, the fall 2012 group also included students with majors in art, chemistry, communications, English, neuroscience, and psychology. The topics students can pursue for their field projects are similarly wide-ranging.

Khan’s first bit of advice to students as they begin working on a project is relevant regardless of the topic. “A big issue, and I do this [at Ripon], is making sure they’re focused enough and that their projects are narrow enough that they can be successful,” she noted. “Students often want to take on more than they can really handle, so the first thing is guiding them to have narrower questions that they can answer in the time that’s available.”

Beyond that, she continued, “I encourage [students] to find a project that really turns them on, because if it doesn’t, they just can’t sustain their interest. I think that’s going to be an important in Tanzania.”

Memuna Khan in ItalyAt the K-T boundary, which marks a mass extinction 65 million years ago in Italy.

Field work is what called Khan to a career in biology, and in her research she has studied wild bird populations in Hawaii, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. She thrives on the challenges of adjusting to changing conditions, taking setbacks in stride, and, especially, solving problems in the field. “That’s where creative thinking happens,” she said, “and that’s where a lot of growing happens, too.”

“Students are used to reading [about research] in a textbook, but they don’t get the feel for just how long science takes and how many little details you have to figure out just to get your project done,” Khan said. “I think that’s the fun part – the problem-solving. I encourage students to come meet with me and we can problem-solve together.”

Working together, with each other as well as with Khan and UDSM faculty, will be important for the students in Tanzania, according to Khan. In part, cooperation is necessary simply for the logistics of using available resources at the field camp, whether it’s sharing vehicles to travel to the field sites or translators for interviewing Tanzanians. Often, students help each other when extra hands are needed to collect data, or they coordinate their independent projects to work alongside each other at an archaeological site or to study a population of animals.

Throughout her career, Khan has had experience with collaborative research. In her ongoing research on Eastern bluebirds in Wisconsin during the summer, she has developed ways for students to help each other even as they are working on individual projects.

Measuring a baobab treeTanzania Program participants collecting data in the field on the size of baobab trees.

Photo courtesy of Karin Linnea Karlen

“I would say [to the students] ‘OK, you go out together, but one of you will collect this set of data and another will collect that set of data. You’re going to do the research collaboratively, but you will each test different hypotheses. I can help [students in Tanzania] with that kind of project management.”

“A lot of science is collaborative,” Khan pointed out. “There are so many techniques now, that you can’t be an expert in all of them. So often, to get work done and to answer the questions you’re interested in, you have to work with others.”

As an example, she noted that as an ecologist she might be interested in population genetics but not have the research skills to do it all herself. “You’ll collaborate with someone else,” she said, “so you can collect the ecological data and the blood samples and then the two of you can write a paper about population genetics and ecology together. You have to be able to work with others.”

As the fall semester approaches, Khan’s lifelong enthusiasm for going someplace new will be kicking into high gear. “I’m looking forward to discovering a new place with a group of people and being able to reflect on it,” she said. “I think it’s going to be transformative for all of us.”

Except as noted, photos are courtesy of Memuna Khan.


Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins

Memuna Khan’s bio on the ACM website and Ripon College faculty profile

More articles about the Tanzania Program

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