Dartmouth’s highly regarded biological sciences department—which boasts the often-mimicked, rigorous foreign study abroad program (FSP) to Costa Rica—has produced many outstanding graduates, and one of them returned to campus on April 29.
Dustin Rubenstein ’99, associate professor of biology at Columbia University, talked with students in the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center about his fascinating research findings, including the ability of a starling (a small bird) in Sub-Saharan Africa to withstand extreme changes in climate.
Of his research, Rubenstein says, “I look at two things: how animals adapt to changing environments—physiologically, morphologically, genetically, and behaviorally—and then I also look at how different environmental and social factors shaped the evolution of the animals’ complex societies.” Rubenstein and his researchers have conducted research worldwide on hummingbirds in Central America, snapping shrimps in the Caribbean, and burying beetles in Asia.
For the past 15 years, Rubenstein has paid special attention to one animal—the Superb Starling—and it’s remarkable endurance in the face of windstorms, fluctuations in temperature, and drought. The animals’ tolerance to the changes—and the timeline of its adaptation and the social and genetic factors involved—may have important implications for other animals’ ability to withstand changes to their environment, says Dartmouth biologist and Neukom Fellow Mark Laidre, who invited Rubenstein to campus. “Dustin is addressing how organisms can cope with human-induced climate change—one of the most pressing questions in all of science,” he says.
A prolific researcher, engaging teacher, and sought-after presenter, Rubenstein’s success doesn’t come as a surprise to former Dartmouth professors. During his senior year, Rubenstein worked closely with Dick Holmes, the Harris Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus, on honors research about using isotopes to track breeding ranges of songbirds, and the resulting article was published in the journal Science—no small feat for a 21-year-old. The article “has become a classic and highly cited study on bird migrations,” says Matthew Ayres, a professor of biological sciences who also taught Rubenstein.
Rubenstein says that Dartmouth provided him with the curricular framework and international research experience to serve as the foundation for his graduate studies and career as a professor. “My work in isotopes set me down the path using integrative biology, and I continue to use tools from my undergraduate classes in neuroscience and molecular biology to complete my work,” he says.
His participation on Dartmouth’s biology FSP to Costa Rica, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year, and the environmental studies FSP to Zimbabwe has had a wide-ranging impact on many students.
At Cornell, where Rubenstein completed his PhD, he created a three-week field research program in Kenya that was modeled after the hands-on field research in small groups he experienced on the Dartmouth biology FSP. The program was a success, and he co-taught it with fellow Cornell graduate student and Dartmouth alumnus Irby Lovette ’91 for six years. Based on those experiences, Rubenstein went on to create a program Kenya for Columbia that was similar and also included a sustainable development element.
Rubenstein is also an excellent writer. For the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, he penned a piece about the importance of his post-graduate experience in the Galapagos made possible by the James Reynolds, Class of 1890, Scholarship for Foreign Study.
Kathy Cottingham, chair of the biological sciences department and the Dartmouth Professor in the Arts & Sciences says, “In a nutshell, Dustin is a wonderful undergraduate success story. His work is outstanding, and he's just a nice guy, as well.”