July 18, 2012 | 04:54 PMIt was a two-week trip to another continent that reminded him of conversations he'd had with his father years earlier. Traveling for close to 24 hours, Stony Brook President Dr. Samuel Stanley visited the school's research facilities in Madagascar and Kenya with his wife Ellen Li and their son Sam.
His tour started in Madagascar, where anthropology professor Patricia Wright led a group of 600 guests in opening a four-story, state-of-the-art facility called Namanabe (for friendship) Hall.
Donning a kufi, the traditional brimless hat worn by African men, Stanley joined the guests at the gala celebration that included heads of other universities, as well as nobility from the area. Rasobotsy, the 95-year-old family queen of the region, called to ancestors as an elder dipped the tail of a sacrificed bull into a bowl of its blood and anointed her head in four places to signify the four corners of the building, according to a recounting by Wright.
Stanley was one of several speakers during the opening ceremonies for a facility that has Internet access, a children's room and 52 beds — each with its own handmade bedspread.
SBU President Dr. Samuel Stanley, left, with Dr. David Krause, center, and Joseph Groenke, a SBU technician, both employed in SBU’s Department of Anatomical Sciences, at a paleontology site in the Mahajanga Basin in Madagascar, where the team discovered new Majungasaurus fossils. Photo from SBU
With a camera draped around his neck and a red Stony Brook baseball hat on his head, Stanley got a first-hand view of nearby Ranomafana National Park's over 100 bird species and 14 species of lemurs — primates Wright has spent over a quarter of a century studying, understanding and protecting.
Through Wright, the university has worked to improve the quality of life of the people with whom they interact, from enhancing their education to upgrading their sanitation and improving their diet to encouraging and building their economy.
Before leaving Ranomafana, Stanley visited with some of the children in a nearby village, who are helping plant seeds provided by Centre ValBio — the research facility Wright helped create in 2003.
Stanley's next stop was in northwest Madagascar, where he visited with paleontologist David Krause, who has dedicated almost two decades to the analysis of dinosaur fossils and those of other vertebrates, including that of a 70 million-year-old frog earlier this year.
Krause brought Stanley to a two-room primary school. Prior to the building of Sekoly Riambato (whose name means "The Stony Brook School") none of the children in the area had attended school. Now, some of the students walk as much as two miles each day across hilly terrain in scalding weather to attend "Stony Brook."
The university has helped build five primary schools and a middle school. "One of the effects of travel like this is that it reminds you of what a great infrastructure capacity we have in the US," Stanley said. "We're very fortunate, compared to much of the rest of the world."
Indeed, the Stanley family celebrated Independence Day at Sekoly Riambato. The students sang the Malagasy National Anthem and raised their island nation's flag. After that, the American contingent offered a slightly off-key, but heartfelt rendition — at least to hear Stanley tell it — of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Stony Brook has also built several clean-water wells and created a program that uses solar radiation to disinfect water for homes. These efforts may dramatically cut diseases from diarrhea — a major cause of death for children under five in the area.
Krause took Stanley to a site that provides the most complete skeletons of many groups of vertebrates from the Cretaceous period.
The Stanley family then traveled to Kenya, where they met with the internationally-renown Leakey family, whose explorations in the African nation spans three generations.
The Leakeys work at the Turkana Basin Institute, which is in the middle of a desert region in northern Kenya that Stanley described as the "cradle of humankind."
Stanley pointed out that the first large-brained member of modern man (and woman) was discovered there.
The Leakeys have found new fossils that Stanley suggests may require rethinking many long-held positions.
"They have some findings that, if they hold up, will challenge conventional wisdom about what our ancestors were doing in the forest versus in the grassland," he said. He didn't want to go into more detail because they haven't published their findings yet.
Stanley, whose father was a cultural anthropologist, was "very aware" of the Leakeys. Meeting them "brought back memories" of conversations he had with his father about human origins.
While at TBI, Stanley visited a maternity clinic, the first of its kind in the region. The power for the electric lights comes from an experimental biogas — a gas made from agricultural and animal waste.
Stanley said he would like to see more combined research efforts, putting the talents of other university faculty to work in the region.
The journey inspired Stanley.
"It's one thing to read about what people are doing, and it's another to experience it first-hand," he said. "To see what Stony Brook is doing is amazing."