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Dustin is a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist who studies the causes and consequences of sociality in animals. He currently works on African starlings in Kenya, and snapping shrimp throughout the Caribbean. He has conducted fieldwork throughout Africa and Central America, as well as in the Galapagos Islands working on birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and crustaceans. He combines intensive field work and modeling with a variety of lab techniques, including molecular genetics, endocrinology, immunology, and stable isotope analysis. Dustin received an AB from Dartmouth College in 1999, followed by a year in the Galapagos Islands as a Reynolds Scholar. He received his PhD in 2006 as a Howard Hughes Predoctoral Fellow at Cornell University. He then moved to the University of California, Berkeley as a Miller Research Fellow. In 2009, he joined the faculty at Columbia University.

Wilson has been working on the African starling project since 2001. He left for a year and a half in 2006 to complete his Diploma in Wildlife Management at the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute. He has also been an integral part of many of the collection trips that we conducted across Kenya to collect starlings.

Godffrey grew up not far from Mpala and began working on the African starling project 2007 after graduating from high school. He monitors superb starling populations annually and works closely with undergraduate and graduate students in the field on a variety of projects.

Lab Manager

Former Lab Members


Principal Investigator

Dustin Rubenstein

Wilson Nderitu

Godffrey Manyaas


James Kealey ’12 MA

James studied the ecology and genomics of caste differentiation in sponge-dwelling snapping shrimp using next generation sequencing and field experiments in Panama. He went on to teach science at a public school in Brooklyn, New York.

Melissa Mark ’09 - ’12 NSF Postdoctoral Fellow

Sara Keen ’11 MA

Sara studied vocal communication and kin recognition in superb starlings. She found that starlings encode individual identity information in flight calls and that social groups can be distinguished by their different calls. She went on to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Undergraduate Students

Jeremy Law ’11 CC

Caitlin Dean ’12 CC

Caitlin studied the relationship between superb starling nest site selection and acacia ant aggressiveness. She found that starlings prefer to nest in trees inhabited by the most aggressive species of ants. She also examined avian diversity in agroforestry landscape with shade coffee plantations in Nicaragua. She went on to work for Princeton in South America.

Jeremy studied mechanisms of kin recognition in sponge-dwelling snapping shrimp. His field trials in Panama showed that different species respond differently to hetero- and conspecifics, and potentially use different mechanisms to recognize kin. He went on to E3B’s M.A. program at Columbia.

Kathleen Apakupakul ’12 MA

Kathleen studied extrapair paternity and differences in patterns of sexual selection in male and female superb starlings. She also examined MHC variation and mate choice in this cooperatively breeding species. She found that sexual selection operates more strongly on females than on males. She went on to a lab tech position at Washington University.

Rebecca Kelley ’13 MA

Rebecca helped develop techniques to study epigenetics in birds. Specifically, she studied DNA methylation of promoter of the avian glucocorticoid receptor in superb starlings and identified that the region is homologous to rats. She went on to the PhD program at New Mexico State University.

Joseph Solomon

In addition to overseeing the lab, Joe is in charge of the bioinformatic work on the genomics of caste differentiation in snapping shrimp and transciptome analysis in starlings. He also examines DNA methylation and stress hormones in starlings.

Gillian Carling ’13 The Bronx High School of Science

Gillian began working in the lab as a Sophomore at the Bronx High School of Science as part of their Biological and Physical Research Projects Mentorship Program. She studied sex determination, hermaphroditism, and sociality in sponge-dwelling snapping shrimp. She was named a finalist at the New York City Science and Engineering Fair. She now attends Columbia University.

Rubenstein lab group (Kenyan portion)

Sarah Guindre-Parker ’12 -

Sarah is interested in the evolution of animal behavior and how ecological and physiological factors may influence reproduction in birds. During her MS, she examined male plumage signals of individual quality and their influence on reproductive success in an Arctic passerine. As an undergraduate, she studied physiology and immunology in birds. For her PhD, she is interested in studying the physiological and environmental costs of reproduction that may favor cooperative breeding behavior across several species of African starlings that differ in their degree of cooperation during breeding. 

Lea studied female dispersal and recruitment patterns in cooperatively breeding superb starlings. She found that immigrant females commonly recruit female relatives into their new groups, thereby creating kin structure within the immigrant population. She went on to field and lab tech positions in Kenya and New York City.

Julia studied the form and function of song in male and female superb starlings to look at patterns of dimorphism in this tropical species. She found that both sexes use and produce song in the same ways, suggesting that song is under strong selection in both sexes. She went on to the PhD program at Tufts University.

Julia Pilowsky ’12 CC

Lea Pollack ’12 CC

Melissa studied the physiological and fitness costs of brood parasitism by cuckoos in Thryothorus wrens in an agro-forest landscape in Nicaragua. She was funded by an NSF Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She found that raising cuckoo chicks is more physiologically costly for parents than raising their own chicks. She went on to work in Brazil.

Lucia Weinman ’14 CC

Lucia used the superb starling transcriptome to develop a SNP array. She compared the power of microsatelllites and SNPs for studies of kinship and parentage in superb starlings, finding that they perform equally well when information about the social parents are known . She went on to a lab tech position in New York City.

Hannah Skolnik ’15 CC

Hannah is developing epigenetic tools to use in zebra finches. She is adapting our work on DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor in starlings to the lab rat of the avian world. She will compare methylation patterns in different brain regions and other tissues.

Laura Booth ’15 CC

Laura is studying spatial and temporal patterns of avian malaria prevalence in African starlings. She is using molecular techniques to screen out extensive DNA collection from superb and other starlings captured since 2001 in Kenya.

Nathan Bailey, Karen Bao, Fayme Cai, Catherine Chen, Madeline Cohen, Heather D’Angelo, Tyler Davis, Ben Eckersley, Rebecca Harris, Jordan Hollarsmith, Nathen Huang, Elora Lopez, Brynn McCleery, Suraj Nagaraj, Kerstin Nolan, Sonalee Rau, Brahadheeshwar Sundararaju


Natalie Hofmeister ’13 -

Natalie is interested in adaptation to variable environments in vertebrates, particularly in the evolution of the vertebrate stress response. As an undergraduate, she examined the causes of spatial variation in δ15N of painted turtles in the Mississippi watershed. She is now studying sequence variation in the glucocorticoid receptor of African starlings to look for differential signatures of selection in species living in forest, savanna, and desert habitats.

Yi-Ru Cheng ’14 -

Graduate Students

Katherine Brooks

Katherine is Columbia Frontiers of Science Fellow interested in the evolution of cooperation and social structure. During her PhD, she studied how evolutionary history, environmental variation, predation risk and physiology influenced social system evolution in ground-dwelling squirrels. She used comparative phylogenetics, field work, and endocrinological lab techniques to investigate these questions. At Columbia, she is using next-generation sequencing to resolve the Synalpheus snapping shrimp phylogeny. With the new phylogeny, she will test questions related to social and behavioral evolution in this socially diverse group of marine organisms.

Yiru is broadly interested in the evolution of avian life history strategies and social behavior. For her MS, she studied how growth strategies could have evolved under different levels of predation pressure in North America passerine birds. For her PhD, she is examining social network dynamics in grey-capped social weavers living the East African savanna ecosystem. Her work emphasizes the formation and maintenance of social groups, as well as how environmental variation influences the stability and robustness of social networks across year.

Joseph Mosiany

Joseph grew up not far from Mpala and has been working on the African starling project since 2013. He monitors superb starling populations annually and works closely with undergraduate and graduate students in the field on a variety of projects.

Research Associates

Kaitlyn Gaynor ’10 CC

Kaitlyn studied primates during and after graduating from Columbia, and then returned as the lab manager in the Rubenstein Lab for two years. She worked on a variety of molecular projects with snapping shrimp. She went on to the PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley.


behavior | ecology | evolution

Columbia University in the City of New York

Jay Falk ’13 -

Jay is a PhD student in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University co-advised by Mike Webster and Dustin Rubenstein. For his undergraduate work, he studied reproductive isolation and mating behavior in Tribolium beetles. He is interested in sex selection and trait evolution in a variety of species including insects, crustaceans, and birds. For his PhD, Jay is studying the evolution and maintenance of female plumage polymorphism in hummingbirds.

Although lab members work on a variety of systems and questions, the tie that binds us altogether is our interest in social behavior and evolution. Some people are more focused on genetics, others on hormones, and still others on sexual traits. Yet, we all are interested in studying the causes and consequences of living in groups, and/or how organisms--social or otherwise--adapt to living in variable and unpredictable environments.

Rafael Maia (beginning July 2015)

Rafael will be starting as a Junior Fellow in the Simons Society of Fellows. This prestigious fellowship from the Simons Foundation will allow Rafael to expand his PhD work on the evolution and development of iridescent colors in bird feathers. His integrative research research focuses on how sexual selection has driven the evolution of ornaments, and ultimately the diversification of lineages. To answer these questions, he believes that understanding the development of such traits is crucial, since it determines how they can be modified and the physiological implications of doing so.