Kelly Miller, Biology professor and curator of Arthropods at the Museum of Southwestern Biology at The University of New Mexico, wants his students to use all their senses, think in new and creative ways, and examine their subjects from unusual and unexpected angles. This, he believes, is the way to make the best new biologists.
“Biology of life is the most complex system we’ve ever encountered so it requires complex thinking. To truly answer questions requires creative and imaginative thinking” he said.
The best way to learn and engage in biology, Miller believes, is actual experience. With this philosophy of teaching in mind, Miller took a class of undergraduate students in 2022 to Kenya where they used all their senses to learn.
Seven undergraduate students took the trip to Kenya with Miller and his associate Ernest Valdez, and had the experience of a lifetime, immersing themselves in the culture, philosophy, history, sociology, and arts of the country, as well as the biology. Valdez is a Research Wildlife Biologist at the USGS Fort Collins Science Center and works at the New Mexico Landscapes Field Station in Albuquerque.
“The idea of this experiential class is to bring the whole of human experience to understanding biology and to see with fresh eyes,” Miller said. “Kenya had all the components for a field trip I was seeking. The goal of the course is to experience biology from a broader range of perspectives than is typical: cultural, artistic, philosophical, sociological. The goal is to see the biological world with new perspectives. The Kenya trip was the capstone experience for this.”
Miller approached now-graduate Emily Schmitt, who received her BS in Biology in 2022, and asked if she’d be interested in joining the group going to Kenya.
“It sounded like such an amazing opportunity, and it truly surpassed all my excitement and expectations,” Schmitt said. “We not only got to explore these amazing, diverse, and unique ecosystems, but we also got to interact with the local people and learn about their culture, their food, their language, and their relationship with the natural world.”
Once in Africa, Miller’s team went through an orientation with Edu Africa, a study abroad program with educational journeys in sub-Saharan Africa. The introduction began with basic lessons in Swahili.
“Because, after all, language is the way we communicate our experiences,” Miller said.
At the Brackenhurst center in the capital of Nairobi, the students had their first experience with the biodiversity and culture of Kenya and an encounter with Sykes monkeys, which can be aggressive.
“At one point we were eating lunch in the building and a monkey came inside and stole some food off one of the tables… Ernie [Valdez] almost came to fisticuffs with one,” Miller recalled.
The group traveled to Mpala Research Center where they went on day and night game drives in safari vehicles to experience the large biofauna of the region. The students saw elephants, antelope, buffalo, hippos, hyena, aardwolf, zebras, reticulated giraffe, dik dik, kudu, more primates, birds, bats, reptiles, arthropods, and many other species.
Valdez, a bat specialist, caught some bats. Five students who had gotten rabies vaccinations were able to handle the bats. One student wrote in her journal that she could feel the heartbeat.
The first night at Mpala, the jet-lagged and fatigued, students planned to sleep late in the morning, but adventure awaited. They were told to get dressed and bring their cameras.
A pair of lions had brought down a buffalo on the road. The group watched the lions and a mongoose devouring the buffalo for an hour. That evening the lions returned and the students went back to watch an entire pride of eight feeding on the carcass in the dark.
Students met a group of local villagers near Mpala.
“These women were so welcoming, they grabbed our hands and had us join in on a dance to praise the rain we had the night before,” Schmitt recalled. “Although our cultures could not be more different, it becomes very apparent to me what we all have in common. We all love to sing and dance, to laugh and give thanks. I also noticed their strong sense of community, how everyone in the village was loved and cared for by everyone else, and no one ever had to face the world alone. It made me realized that our culture could learn a few things from them.”
A trip up Mt. Kenya to 12,000 feet in altitude was full of memories for the team too.
“It was blustery and cold and absolutely beautiful,” Miller said. “Our focus on Mt. Kenya was the sense of touch. Tactile sensation was particularly intense with the plants: different shapes, textures, heft, etc. Our main activity was a hike up the mountain to experience the biodiversity and landscape along the way.”
“After about an hour we had made it less than a mile,” Schmitt said. “We were all so busy looking at flowers or bugs, or taking pictures and showing each other cool rocks, that we weren’t too concerned with making it up the mountain. We all like to look a little closer at the world around us, and although we might not make it far down the trail, we will always be discovering new and exciting things.”
The group headed back to Nairobi, crossing the equator along the way, and on to Nairobi National Park where they saw, among other animals, ostriches, rhinos, Masai giraffe, and sacred ibis. Other animals encountered along the way included more elephants, elephant shrews, and “extremely rare” owls. The final adventure was at the Tana River where they saw dozens of rare mangabey and colubus monkeys.
“I know that this trip will have a lasting impact on my career,” said Schmitt, who recently got accepted to the Ph.D. program in the UNM Biology department. “This trip helped me see the world beyond the laboratory, the world that doesn’t fit into boxes and can’t be organized or categorized. It helped me see that our world is much more complex than science can explain, at least for now. I am excited to begin my career as a biologist, to help explore and understand the complexities of the natural world. I know that this trip will help me keep the important things in mind: my sense of community with not only the people around me, but also the plants and animals that share our community, my gratitude for the opportunities I have received, and will continue to receive throughout my life, and the importance of preserving the beauty and functionality our natural world.”
Miller is looking ahead to the next trip.
“We look for a fair amount of willingness to experience challenging circumstances, someone willing to think outside the box, and an enthusiasm for biodiversity,” he said. “I like to think the activities may have been truly transformative for the students. I like to think we stimulated their curiosity and their wonder, and that they will be better biologists and better people because of it.”
Qualified biology students who are interested should contact Miller.
Top image: In safari van are student Helena Mieras, Professor Kelly Miller, student Roxanne Márquez, and student Simon Doneski.