Conversations with: Dr Stephen Rucina

This week, I am delighted to introduce Dr Stephen Rucina, a senior research scientist at the National Museums of Kenya! Stephen specialises in palynology and East African palaeoecology, leading the Palaeobotany and Palynology Section at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. He completed his PhD at the University of Amsterdam, examining Late Quaternary palaeoenvironments of Mount. Kenya and the Amboseli Basin in southern Kenya. His research primarily concerns eastern African quaternary environmental and climate change, which often links to human evolutionary questions.

Dr Stephen Rucina, a palynologist from the National Museums of Kenya

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

By profession, I am a palynologist so I study fossil and living plant pollens. However, I am interested in quaternary climate and environmental change, the dynamic history of tropical ecosystems, the long-term evolution of diverse floras in a geological and climatological context, the comparison of palaeodata with model output and human civilisations and climate change.

What originally drew you towards studying palaeoenvironments? 

There was job advertisement for a technician position at the East African Herbarium at the National Museums of Kenya, which I applied and fortunately got. This initial work in the Herbarium was mostly curatorial, which included identifying plants, curating plant collections from the field and getting involved in the study of plant ecology. Later, I transferred to the Palynology and Palaeobotany Section after becoming interested in working on plant fossils, including fossil pollen grains and other fossilised plant material. My experience working with diverse flora, both in the Herbarium and the field, was then enough experience to start applying to the study of palaeoenvironments, as I did in my PhD.

Dr Stephen Rucina

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? 

My PhD topic was “Kenya Ecosystem dynamics: Perspective from high and low altitude ecosystems” and was completed at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. My supervisor was Prof. Robert Marchant who is a lecturer at the University of York in the UK. My promoter was Prof. Henry Hooghiemstra, then a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam who is now retired. I used palaeoecological data, specifically charcoal and pollen, from sediments extracted from swamp cores at one highland and two lowland sites to compare and contrast ecosystem response to Late Quaternary environmental change and human interactions in Kenya.

What current projects are you working at the National Museum of Kenya?

Currently, I am working on the Kilombe project, a large Acheulean hand-axe site in the central rift valley of Kenya, in collaboration with Liverpool University. It’s headed by Prof. John Gowlett.

Excavating with colleagues at Kilombe
Taking a break after a day of hard work (John Gowlett)!

Describe your role at the National Museums of Kenya.

I am an affiliate of the Department of Earth Sciences at the National Museums of Kenya which has four sections, namely Archaeology, Palynology & Palaeobotany, Palaeontology and Geology. I head the Palynology & Palaeobotany Section; a position I have held for the last 25 years. My main responsibility in this role is the broad planning and provision of efficient and effective research services within my section. I also carry out research and curatorial functions where applicable. At times, I head the Earth Sciences Department in acting capacity within the Directorate of Research and Collections. I also undertake any other duties as assigned by the Director General and Director of Research and Collections.

Describing the core recovered from a swamp

What is your favourite thing about this role? What would you change if you could?

My favourite thing about my role at the National Museums of Kenya is working with collections — the preservation and conservation of these collections, carrying out research using these collections and participating in collaborative research with both local and international researchers. If I could change anything, I would put a lot more funding into the research done here in Kenya, especially to support upcoming young researchers. Some of these young people from this part of the world have very good ideas that unfortunately end up going to waste.

What do you hope to work on in the future?

I think when the time comes, I will leave active research and concentrate on writing my biography, from village life in rural areas of Kenya up to when I retire as a palynologist. I might also get involved in working with rural communities, such as improving school infrastructure in the community where I come from, something that is ongoing now too. I would like to give back to my community.

Describing the sediments. Stephen with local children in the background

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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