by Len Lear
You might call Ben Finkel “the Jane Goodall of Mt. Airy.” Ben, 30, a graduate of Germantown Friends School who grew up in Mt. Airy, spent the year in 2018 studying the aging process, health and behavior of the wild chimpanzees who live in Uganda’s Kibale National Park in East Africa with the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project. His work reminds one of Jane Goodall, the English primatologist and world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. (Goodall is best known for her 60-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees since she first went to live with them at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960.)
“I have worked with researchers who are direct academic descendants of Jane Goodall’s work,” Ben told us last week, “but I cannot say I have really followed in her footsteps. My main interest was in animals and animal behavior since childhood. I went to Schuylkill Valley Nature Center and birding camps and planned to study ecology and conservation. In fact, in 2008 I had a writeup in the Local because I got a high school student fellowship with Earthwatch for a research experience at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Manitoba. I actually studied tundra swamp frogs and minnows there! I haven’t always studied the most charismatic species. Then in college (the University of Michigan) I ‘discovered’ primates.”
Ben is currently a biological anthropology Ph.D candidate who has completed his field work and will be ready to defend his dissertation in about two years. The title of his dissertation is “Aging, Frailty and Foraging Ability of Wild Male Chimpanzees.”
Not too many other people in the world could say this, but Ben currently has 1,300 samples of chimpanzee urine that have been sitting in Uganda for one year. He just recently got the permits necessary to bring the samples to the U.S. Thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation, Ben will be traveling to New Mexico to do further research on the urine samples.
On June 7 of this year, Ben was married to his fiancee, Caitlin Lawson. Believe it or not, June 7 is also both of their birthdays. (Caitlin, 31, was born exactly one year earlier than Ben.) They recently moved to Boston because Caitlin was hired to be an assistant professor at Emmanuel College. “We live near Fenway Park,” said Ben. “Maybe I will turn into a Red Sox fan. Right now I would love to see a baseball game live.”
Caitlin, a native of the Oklahoma City area, also has an impressive academic history. A post-doctoral fellow from the University of Michigan, she met Ben on a dating app. Her areas of interest are feminist media studies, digital culture and pop culture. You might say that she studies primates who live in houses, and Ben studies primates who live in the wild.
“We joke that I study celebrity chimps, and she studies celebrity people,” said Ben, who loves to do both research and teaching but is not as optimistic about the job market as he would like to be.
“The academic job market right now is really bleak,” he said, “so I have to be flexible. I will look into jobs in conservation, education and parks. I could not ask for a better place to look for this kind of work than here in Boston (because of all the universities, as in Philadelphia).”
Ben’s dad, Ken Finkel, is a lecturer at Temple University in Philadelphia culture and history. His mom, Margaret Kirk, who grew up on a farm around animals (which had an influence on Ben), is a writer. They still live in Mt. Airy.
Ben and Caitlin had planned their wedding for June 7 (their birthdays) before the pandemic arrived, so they seriously considered postponing it until June of 2021. Both pairs of parents encouraged them to stick to the original date, however, even though it meant that there would only be a small number of people there in Ann Arbor, Michigan (and an online officiant), and that the four parents would not be present.
“It was sad that our parents could not be there,” said Ben, “but we feel we made the right decision, and we are very lucky that our parents all said we should go ahead with it.”
(Ben had no doubt how serious the coronavirus is. In 2017 a similar virus killed 20 chimpanzees at the Kibale National Park in Uganda.)
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com
Please take the time to support our journalism. You can do that with a subscription or with a tax-deductible donation to the Chestnut Hill Community Fund, which launched a support fund for the Local to help us remain funded during this pandemic. Thank you for your support!