UW News

September 29, 2022

International field course held in Indonesia and led by UW professor ends after 30 years

Group photo of people behind banner

Randall Kyes, founding director of the UW Center for Global Field Study, led an annual field course in conservation biology and global health in Indonesia that lasted three decades.Randall Kyes

It was 1990, and Randall Kyes’ first trip to Tinjil Island was ending. Kyes, a postdoctoral fellow at the time, had spent more than two months on the small Indonesian island monitoring a recently launched breeding program for long-tailed macaque monkeys.

But then an Indonesian colleague asked a question — one Kyes said changed his life. Local veterinary students were eager to learn about primate behavior and conservation, he said. Would Kyes be willing to return next year and run a field course?

“That took my career and turned it in a very different direction,” said Kyes, research professor of psychology at the University of Washington, core scientist in the UW Primate Center, or WaNPRC, and the founding director of the UW Center for Global Field Study. “It didn’t take but a second for me to say, ‘No problem.’”

That response transformed a short trip into an annual field course in conservation biology and global health that lasted three decades. Kyes and his Indonesian colleague conducted the 30th and final iteration in the summer of 2022.

The course originally launched for Indonesian students in 1991. By 1995, it was going so well that Kyes added American students by establishing the International Field Study Program-Indonesia at the UW. The month-long study abroad program, held in collaboration with the Primate Research Center, or PSSP, at IPB University in Indonesia, provided field-based educational and research opportunities for students from the UW, Indonesia and other participating countries.

“The cultural exchange and connection that developed from that was more than we ever could’ve imagined,” said Kyes, who is also a faculty member in the Southeast Asia Center in the UW Jackson School of International Studies. “That was almost the highlight of the whole program, more than doing the field research.”

PSSP, with support from the WaNPRC, established the natural habitat breeding program for free-ranging long-tailed macaques on Tinjil Island. The field course was then designed to provide educational, training and research opportunities for students interested in conservation biology, animal behavior, primatology, environmental science and global health.

Before traveling to Indonesia, UW students would take a spring course that prepped them with the basics of the Indonesian language and allowed them to develop a proposal for their independent research project. Once on the island, students conducted field research while also attending lectures and taking part in field training exercises.

A total of 372 students participated in the course over the years – 266 from Indonesia and 106 from other countries. Of the 91 students from United States institutions, 77 were from the UW.

“You had this ideal environment to bring students in for a true field study experience,” Kyes said. “We don’t have any really dangerous animals on the island. It’s a stable environment and fully forested. It’s remote. You had to take about an hour’s boat ride to get there. All the resources and food had to be shipped out every few days.

“That’s what was so special and intriguing about Tinjil Island – it was a natural and wild environment that gave the students a good feel of what it would be like to do field research as a career. Most everybody loved it. Other students told me, ‘I’m really glad I did this because I guess field research isn’t for me.’ That’s perfect. We wanted to give them an opportunity before they got too involved. Tinjil provided that opportunity.”

The final field course culminated with a celebration seminar, which was attended by alumni from as far back as the inaugural course in 1991. Kyes gave an hour-long presentation that highlighted the program’s evolution. In the early years, he said, there wasn’t even electricity on the island.

Man standing in front of projector

Randall Kyes gives a presentation during the celebration seminar that followed the final field course.Randall Kyes

“The alumni shared these amazing stories about their experiences,” Kyes said. “Many of these American and Indonesian students, they’re still in touch. I know some American students that have gone back over the years to visit friends they’ve made. You don’t expect that these connections are going to last that long.

“What kept me coming back to the program is the students’ motivation and their dedication in wanting to help with in-country conservation and related public health issues. Helping to promote the local students and scientists has always been the underlying theme of my work.”

While Kyes’ time on Tinjil Island is ending, his international focus isn’t done. Kyes maintains a strong partnership with PSSP and has established other collaborative programs in Indonesia and several other countries, including Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, China, Mexico, India and Laos. Although there isn’t a formal study abroad program at these sites, UW students have joined Kyes for one-off experiences.

And even though the Tinjil Island program is ending, two of Kyes’ earliest students will be continuing the field course on mainland Java, one of the Greater Sunda Islands in Indonesia.

One of the organizers is Dr. Entang Iskandar, a former Indonesian student and current senior research scientist at PSSP, IBP University. He participated in the first field course in 1991 and has collaborated with Kyes on each ensuing course. Matthew Novak, who was among the first study abroad students in 1995 and is now an associate professor of psychology at Central Oregon Community College, will be bringing students. Kyes won’t be leading the course, but he still plans to teach.

“This is exactly what you want to see,” Kyes said. “You want to train people who then can take over and continue it into the future. It’s so rare that we see that. It’s so rare that you spend 30 years nurturing a program like this and you’re able to see it expand. If we want to be successful in helping the environment and biodiversity, there needs to be a next generation leading the way. This is a shining example of that.”

For more information, contact Kyes at rkyes@uw.edu.