2012 Ernest A. Lynton Award Recipient

The annual Ernest A. Lynton Award for the Scholarship of Engagement for Early Career Faculty recognizes a faculty member who connects his or her teaching, research, and service to community engagement.  The award is designated for either pre-tenure faculty at tenure-granting campuses or early career faculty (i.e., within the first six years) at campuses with long-term contracts.

Karubian photoThis year, NERCHE is pleased to present the Ernest A. Lynton Award to Dr. Jordan Karubian, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Northwest Ecuador, which has one of the highest concentrations of both species diversity and human populations, is considered a “conservation hotspot,” a focal point of the growing environmental crisis. It is there that Jordan Karubian, in collaboration with a team of community members, students, and professionals working in the environmental sphere, has developed a multifaceted community-based program to enhance stewardship of the environment and the welfare and conservation capacity of local residents.

A scientist by training, Jordan Karubian is a careful and systematic observer of both the endangered fauna of the area and the social networks and interrelated systems that characterize the region’s human community. His ability to recognize the value of local expertise increased the chances of success for the project and contributed to the advancement of knowledge in the field. Moreover, his willingness to examine his own biases, including those that may be embedded in traditions of his scientific training, coupled with a pragmatic approach to solving problems, has led him to challenge basic tenets and methodologies of the discipline. He argues that in the field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, scientific research that fails to account for context is essentially ineffective.  “As in many developing countries,” he writes, “enforcement of environmental regulations is weak in this region. As such, it is the local residents whose attitudes and actions are de facto determining the conservation trajectory of this area. In this context, a traditional, ‘extractive’ model of scholarship (e.g., working with U.S. field assistants in private reserves, little contact with local residents, and disseminating results only in technical journals) is unlikely to yield meaningful conservation gains.”

Dr.Karubian followed a traditional research protocol when he began his work in Ecuador as a post-doc fellow. While his conservation work could have focused on protecting threatened rainforests by limiting human involvement in them, he “determined [instead] that the most effective way forward was to engage local residents in an inclusive, and comprehensive approach to conservation, with the fundamental premise that the wellbeing of the environment and local residents are inextricably linked.” To that end, he focused on learning about the community and developing relationships that would form the foundation of the project, eventually bringing together the team who, he writes, “all shared a similar vision melding environmental and social wellbeing. We continue to operate as a cohesive, horizontally arrayed team with diverse backgrounds and strengths that work together in a coordinated and synergistic manner….”

The research at the heart of the project is carried out by undergraduate and graduate students, PhD-level biologists, and community members—“hunters-turned-researchers”—who have a deep knowledge of the natural history and basic biology of the endangered species under study.  Over the course of several years, the local researchers, or “Environmental Ambassadors,” have become proficient in experimental design, data collection, computer literacy, and public speaking.

Working as full collaborators with other team members, Environmental Ambassadors, who Karubian identifies as the “centerpiece” of the project, often generate hypotheses that the team tests with standardized data collection. He writes; “For example, community researcher Domingo Carera suggested that the palm tree Oenocarpus bataua is likely to be disproportionately important to the reproductive behavior of the Long-wattled Umbrellabirds. With local resident input, I designed a sampling methodology to test this prediction, Mr. Cabrera gathered the data with student assistance and entered it into Excel, I conducted statistical analyses, and Mr. Cabrera presented the results at the IX Neotropical Ornithological Congress. Many of the studies we conduct follow this same basic process.”

The knowledge generated from the research is actively used by reserve managers, community members, and the Ministry of the Environment, and is fundamental to local and regional outreach and educational programs, as are the Ambassadors themselves. Karubian explains that, “[t]hese individuals are highly respected men and women [who] give back to their communities by changing local values and promoting sustainable practices. They make regular presentations on environmental themes to adults and children; host ‘hands-on’ events to educate about their research and provide opportunities to harmlessly interact with local flora and fauna; and make regular visits to schools. These approaches are more effective than efforts by outsiders, and we have witnessed significant shifts in local attitudes and behaviors directly attributable to this program.” Dr. Karubian is currently replicating this model of engaged research, teaching, and service in Papua New Guinea, where he is testing the efficacy of community-based knowledge generation through an analysis of descriptive data on patterns of participation and outcomes. 

Dr. Karubian, perhaps too modestly, describes his contributions to the project in terms of supplying information needed to make “wise decisions,” facilitating the decision-making process, and providing technical training required to act on these decisions. But his profound understanding of the role of context, his insights into the inter-relatedness of human and environmental systems, and his respect for and commitment to the residents of local communities with which he works created the scaffolding for the project’s many accomplishments and bolstered its chances for sustainability. The recently formed Ecuadorian NGO named Foundación Conservación de los Andes Tropicales (FCAT) exemplifies the project. Success. The governing board consists of longtime team members working closely with the broader community to solicit and incorporate information on perceived needs, and how best to meet them. Karubian plays only an advisory role on issues other than scientific research. FCAT, he writes, is “the vehicle by which Ecuadorians continue to expand their ownership of the [project]. This is perhaps [the] most profound example of the environment of mutual respect and non-hierarchical structure we have adopted: FCAT is the vehicle by which Ecuadorians are taking literal ownership of the design, implementation, and management of this project.”

The project’s approach to research, teaching, and service suggests a shift from “community-engaged” to “community-centered” faculty work, and, in areas such as Northwest Ecuador that are under siege on multiple fronts, the continued success of the project requires the involvement of like-minded faculty from a range of disciplines.  Even as community members realize that it is in their best interests to protect the environment, Karubian recognizes that “they face stark economic choices, which often force them to make sub-optimal decisions in the name of short term economic necessity…. In the future,” he explains, “I hope to collaborate with colleagues who have expertise in sustainable development, social science, and environmental economics to expand the model of engaged scholarship we currently have up and running in the ecological sphere.” Karubian’s research has been recognized with a prestigious International Research Experience for Students (IRES) grant from the National Science Foundation, which provides funding for 21 students from under-represented groups to conduct independent research in Australia in interaction with local residents, students, and researchers.

Locally at Tulane University, his Behavioral Ecology course combines both research and service to a local environmental advocacy agency, the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), to use in their community outreach. In one instance, students researched local endangered fauna, packaging, in Karubian’s words, “the ‘Gee-whiz’ aspects of the animals’ behavior in an easily understood format” which they publicized through the community partner’s website and outreach programs.  “A related goal,” he explains,  “is for service learners to use the experience to gain a deeper appreciation for the ways in which behavioral ecology intersects with social, political, cultural and economic aspects of the lives in the Gulf Region.” In his Experimental Animal Behavior class, students collaborate with curators from the local Audubon Zoo to design, implement, and present the findings from research projects that address the needs of the zoo. Globally and locally, Dr. Karubian’s community engaged scholarship fulfills Tulane’s mission of “fostering community-building initiatives as well as scientific, cultural and social understanding that integrate with and strengthen learning and research.”

The 2012 Lynton Award will be presented at the 18th Annual Conference of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU) which will be held from October 13-16, 2012, at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. CUMU is a co-sponsor of the Award.


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