Students spend the summer in Kenya researching fire ecology

Read more about the group’s experiences and research on the blog they kept:

GOSHEN, Ind. – While most college students spent their summers working a summer job and taking a break from studies, four Goshen College students and recent alumni spent the summer riding around the African savanna in a Land Rover, spotting elephants and studying fire ecology with their professor.

For six weeks this summer, the students had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in Kenya as they worked alongside Associate Professor of Biology Ryan Sensenig on his fire ecology research. The four students were: Laura Schlabach, a 2010 graduate from Goshen who majored in communication and environmental science; David Stoesz, a senior biology and environmental science major from Indianapolis, Ind.; Tori Yoder, a 2011 graduate from Goshen who majored in biology and environmental science; and Luke Zehr, a junior biology and environmental science major from Tiskilwa, Ill. The students worked at the Mpala Research Center in Laikipia, Kenya, and helped re-survey burns that Sensenig completed in 2004-05 when he was doing his doctoral research there.

The research
The Fire Ecology Research Team surveyed more than 13,000 trees and gained some insight about local sustainable development. “I think the team returned with a better idea of the process of scientific research, but they also spoke highly of the opportunity to work with the local community and tackle questions of conservation and sustainable development,” said Sensenig. “Working in Laikipia, Kenya, affords us the opportunity to wrestle with how to do conservation of wildlife, while simultaneously working to address needs in the local human community.”

Sensenig’s previous research included conducting burns in different ranches in Laikipia. Fire is a natural part of savanna ecosystems, as it removes old plant parts and allows young, tender plants to grow. His previous research also tracked different animals’ grazing patterns.

From that research – recently published in the journal “Ecology” – he and his team found that smaller animals preferred the fresh re-growth that sprouted after the burns took place, and larger animals continued to graze mostly in unburned territories. In this way, they found that fires could increase diversity.

The students’ research involved tracking which habitat animals chose to graze in, as well as surveying whistling thorn trees at the old burn sites. As the group surveyed the trees, they assessed the tree growth, the species of ants that resides in the tree and evidence of elephant browsing.

When Sensenig and his team began recording post-burn data years ago, they found that elephants seemed to push over trees more in burned areas than unburned areas. The students continued investigating the role of elephants, in the hopes of finding out whether elephants choose to browse more heavily in burned areas and why. This area of research will most directly affect the large cattle ranches present in certain areas of Kenya.

An intercultural experience
Living at the Mpala Research Center allowed the students to interact with researchers from all over the world. “Living at the Mpala Research Center was an exiting time of learning more about the international scientific community, and how effective collaborating with researchers of diverse backgrounds can be in strengthening a team’s approach to a project,” said Zehr.

But the students’ time in Kenya wasn’t only spent surveying trees. The times in between being out in the field researching were filled with hiking and animal spotting. Travelling to different burn sites in the Land Rover often provided opportunities for animal sightings. Herds of elephants would obstruct their path, gazelles leapt in the distance and lion cubs played not far away.

“I now have a better appreciation for the role of curiosity in the research process,” said Yoder. “Becoming curious about one’s surrounding and asking a lot of questions is essential to both designing and implementing a research project. Whether I return to Kenya to continue investigating these questions someday or move on to other projects, I hope to maintain an avid curiosity about the ecosystems of which I am a part.”

Beyond the awe of the wildlife, the students had the opportunity to get to know the Kenyan people and culture, too. One day, a native Kenyan and a research assistant for the team invited the students and Sensenig’s family to his home for a Maasai naming ceremony for his youngest daughter.

“It was a tremendous honor to be invited to this special event as honored guests, and was one of the most memorable days of my time in Kenya,” wrote Schlabach in a post on the group’s blog. “The experience highlighted for me again the importance of respect, family and prioritizing time and energy into relationships with people from different cultures around the world.”

– By Alysha Landis

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit