From the jungles and rainforests of Costa Rica to the Serengeti of Tanzania, David Ribble has led countless Trinity undergraduates on breathtaking research opportunities.
In 2020, he’s leading another expedition, now as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs: Budget and Research. His mission is to seek out new ways for Trinity faculty and students to keep these opportunities alive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This year, we asked ourselves a tough question: Is research dead?” Ribble says. “Students can’t be in our labs, they can’t go abroad, so that limits them.”
But Ribble, who oversees Trinity’s vast network of undergraduate research, says rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“At first, there were just a few voices in the humanities leading the way saying, ‘There are still ways for us to do this remotely,’” Ribble says. “Then, there’s this creativity that starts spreading, as more and more faculty across different disciplines realize, ‘Wait a minute; maybe we can still do research with students.’”
During the summer, Ribble says Trinity faculty rapidly found ways to adjust their projects, shifting to more intensive literature reviews, conducting deeper data analysis, and incorporating more modeling. “Eventually, we more or less powered through it all.”
Making Self Discoveries
Ribble is not content for research at Trinity merely to have a pulse. He wants it to thrive, as it did before the pandemic.
Ribble, a 1982 Trinity graduate, arrived back at the University in 1992 as a biology professor teaching courses in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology. Venturing outside the classroom, he started taking students on trips to New Mexico and parks in San Antonio early in his career, then expanded to experiential field-based learning courses within the United States and China. He and his students have been to Mexico, South Africa, and Tanzania, where his research culminated in the discovery and description of a new mammal, the grey-faced elephant-shrew.
Ribble’s hallmark project is perhaps the Costa Rican Ecology course, a month-long experience that pits Ribble and a small team of students against the challenging terrain of Costa Rica. The project, started in 2017, measured the long-term effects of global warming on mammals and their ecosystems across various elevations of Costa Rica’s mountains, jungles, and coastlines.
“Talk about hands-on: You’re going out into the jungle, not knowing what data you’re going to find, and then at the end of the course you’re presenting your research,” Ribble says. “There’s no lab, there’s no cookbook. You’re actually getting out there and making mistakes, having to re-do things when it gets messy. And you work collaboratively with groups of people.”
While many in-person adventures such as the Costa Rica class have been put on hold during the pandemic, Ribble says Trinity still enjoys a strong foundation of support from grants and funding across both the sciences and the humanities, thanks to initiatives such the Mellon Foundation.
“There’s faculty and students doing research on this campus that is just so rich and so exciting, and that’s what Trinity is all about,” Ribble says. “Trinity students are liberally trained, and that means we’re teaching them to learn how to learn.”
The most valuable discoveries these students make, according to Ribble, aren’t tied to data.
“You can take a student who might not be hitting it through the roof with their grades, but that research opportunity gives them the confidence and they come back to school transformed by a discovery,” Ribble says, “that they can be scientists.”
Ribble’s own discovery is that in his administrative role, he still treasures teaching. While his day-to-day involvement in policy work at the leadership level is time-consuming, he also makes time for the First-Year Experience on Climate Change he teaches with English professor Kelly Grey Carlisle. Teaching is a two-way street for Ribble, who admits he’s still finding ways to learn from Trinity undergraduates. His findings are leading to transformations aimed at instilling a sense of community and inclusion in life sciences research.
These policy changes include: cultivating more faculty ambassadors to spread the word about research to the student body; hosting open visits to labs for students; and implementing a common application for summer undergraduate opportunities. This way, students who might be shy to hop on a faculty’s Zoom office hours when they first arrive at Trinity are placed on even footing with students who are more acquainted with faculty.
“Casting a broader net, that’s going to help us create more opportunities,” Ribble says. “That’s going to build that community that makes people feel welcome, feel included, and that’s going to get more students involved with research earlier in their careers.”
This inclusivity, Ribble continues, also opens the doors for faculty to learn new lessons themselves.
“What’s fun about undergraduates is they’re a blank slate,” Ribble says. “That naivete that they bring to research is refreshing. They’ll challenge you, ‘Why are you doing it that way? That makes no sense.’ You learn from them as a professor just as much as they learn from you.”
This two-way flow of information leads to breakthroughs in more ways than one, Ribble says. “When students get involved with research, they get fascinated with the method more than the material. We forget that elephant shrews are part of the family Macroscelididae. What we actually remember is problem solving: that’s what we can use across all areas of our lives.”
In 2020, this approach to problem solving is not a luxury—it’s a prerequisite, according to Ribble. Because when you’re confident in your problem-solving tools, research doesn’t seem like a set of impossible, abstract tasks from a dry textbook.
“The more a student learns to teach themselves,” Ribble says. “The better off they’re going to be. That isn’t easy, but it makes the subject come alive.”