About Robert Sapolsky: advancing our understanding of stress for decades

Robert Sapolsky is a biologist specializing in neuro-endocrinology. He’s a primatologist who studies savanna baboons in Kenya. He’s a teacher and scholar at Stanford University. He’s an author, a father and an explorer. He received the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” fellowship at the age of 30. His books, four of them, make good use of his great story-telling ability and keen sense of the bizarre to explain the biochemistry of the brain, the physiology of stress and the adventure of doing field biology in the Serengeti. His knack for describing complex science in accessible and amusing ways emerges in his many magazine articles. His Stanford classes are jammed with students eager to hear his often-hilarious observations about primates and humans. His books, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone and, most recently, Monkeyluv, have won numerous honors and sold thousands of copies, in the United States and abroad.

While Sapolsky’s primary research on stress and disease takes place in his Stanford lab, he has, for over 30 years, traveled to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve to study several populations of olive baboons, figuring out what dominance rank, social behavior and personality have to do with patterns of stress-related diseases.

Talek troop baboons Saffi, a coveted female, and York, a dominant male, enjoy the shade along the banks of the Talek River.
Photo credit: Randy Bean

Known affectionately by local villagers as “Bwana Nugu” (“Mister Baboon”), Sapolsky sets up his primitive field laboratory near the banks of the Talek River, to live near the baboons he observes and tracks with a tranquilizer blow-gun. After darting two or three males, he transports them to camp, draws their blood and records their cardiovascular function. Baboon blood reveals the many things that can go awry when troop members endure such psycho-social stressors as being bullied, losing a love interest to a higher-ranking baboon or simply maintaining their rank in the hierarchy. Sapolsky has accumulated over three decades’ worth of blood samples from his many baboon dartings, and hopes that some day this gold mine of baboon blood will yield more insights into stress and metabolic disease, depression and aging.

As a boy in New York City, Sapolsky dreamed of living in one of the African wildlife dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History.

Sapolsky and producer/director John Heminway talk about the biology of baboons
Photo Credit: Robert Poole

A week after his graduation from Harvard in 1978, he chased his dream all the way to Kenya, to begin studying the social behaviors of baboons. He returned to New York long enough to earn his doctorate at Rockefeller University, and completed postdoctoral studies at the Salk Institute.

Sapolsky is currently the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, and by courtesy of Neurosurgery. Sapolsky has been a member of the Stanford faculty since 1987. In 1998, he won the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching, awarded by the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

The Sapolsky Lab at Stanford

Sapolsky’s laboratory in the department of biology focuses on three issues: how a neuron dies (during aging or following various neurological insults); how neuron death can be accelerated by stress; and gene therapy strategies to protect endangered neurons from neurological disease. The discovery was made here that sustained stress could damage the hippocampus, a region of the brain central to learning and memory.

Video Photo Credit: John Heminway