Faculty Spotlight: Karin Enstam Jaffe

Lions, tigers and bears, Oh my! But what about primates? About 50 years ago the most common name to be associated with these complex creatures would probably be primatologist, Jane Goodall. 

Fast-forward to 2014, and Sonoma State has its very own force to be reckoned with in the jungle. Biological anthropologist Karin Enstam Jaffe is the Anthropology Department chair and also the director of the Sonoma State University Primate Ethology Research Lab (SSUPER). 

At first, Jaffe wanted to be an archeologist but then after realizing the vast amount of languages she would have to learn she chose to go down a different avenue. 

Before starting her college career not sure of what she wanted to pursue, Jaffe reached out to a trusted high school teacher, in her case her AP History teacher, to talk about college and her options based on what she was interested in.

“He gave me a textbook on anthropology and I was leafing through it and I saw a section on Jane Goodall studying primates and primates are my favorite animal,” said Jaffe. “I started looking at schools that offered some kind of coursework or internships in primate behavior.”

She followed her appreciation for the social mammals to University of California San Diego where part of her coursework would be assisting in multiple projects at the San Diego Zoo, specifically with Orangutans and the space use of the François Leaf Monkey. 

In 1994, she received her undergraduate degree in anthropology and went on to University of California Davis for her Master’s where she studied vervet and patas monkeys for two years in Laikipia, Kenya. Her specific area of interest, in terms of that project, was anti-predator behavior, seeing how their habitat affected their responses to predators.  

“I studied things like if the monkeys were in an environment where trees are short and spaced far apart, do they respond to predators differently than if they had really tall trees to climb up and then escape in the canopy?” said Jaffe. “It doesn’t make much sense to climb up a tree and not go anywhere if it’s short and close to the ground.” 

Her favorite part about the wildlife experience was all of the animals she was able to see on a daily basis in their natural environment. Walking around seeing elephants, giraffes and zebras are not something everyone gets to see everyday. 

After her two-year study, Jaffe went back to University of California, Davis to earn her Ph.D. in anthropology in 2004. 

As she was finishing up her dissertation on the behavioral ethology of anti-predator behavior of vervet and patas monkeys, a friend reached out to Jaffe asking if she’d be interested in giving a lecture for his class. 

She enjoyed the idea of being in a teaching environment at SSU and was aware there was a position open in the anthropology department. 

Jaffe was able to meet with the staff and faculty she would be working alongside and everything just fell into place. 

“It’s actually a really good place for me to be. I wanted to be at an institution that focused on teaching,” said Jaffe. 

She’s happy that she could work relatively close to where her family lives in Portola Valley, in the Bay Area, and also close to collaborators in Davis. 

“When I read the position announcement, I knew I wanted the job,” said Jaffe. 

Currently not involved in fieldwork, Jaffe focuses more now on studies of primates and other species in captivity. She is the director of the SSUPER Lab, which gives the opportunity to five or six anthropology or biology undergraduate and graduate students to assist with a number of hands on research projects at various sites like the San Francisco Zoo and Safari West in Sonoma County. 

“Right now I have biology students working on a project with an all male group of squirrel monkeys at the San Francisco Zoo,” said Jaffe. “Then I have students studying cheetah mating behavior at Safari West.”

Jaffe recently met with officials at the San Francisco Zoo to start a new project on her previous comrades, the patas monkeys. 

She wants the students to focus on applied ethology projects where she reaches out to sites and asks if they are having any problems with their animals or any questions about their behavior that they would like some data on.

“For the most part, the keepers don’t really have the ability or the time to run those kinds of projects,” said Jaffe. 

 She then finds the right student to pair with an animal study based on what the site needs and what the student is currently studying. She says it is a win-win situation because it gives back to the site and also gives the students academic credit doing something that they enjoy. 

Jaffe hopes to build stronger linkages and expand her number of sites to work with and hopefully turn those projects into publications, but for now she is comfortable with the size group that she has ensuring that everyone, most importantly the animals, are receiving the attention that they need.  

“I honestly see myself at Sonoma State for the rest of my career,” said Jaffe. “Hopefully building that research program. If you’re interested in animal behavior, come visit me in Stevenson 2054D!”