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Meet James Sobel, biological sciences

by Erik Bacharach

James Sobel

After a nationwide search for a position that would fulfill both of his most important criteria, James Sobel has found the perfect environment that is equally conducive to both research and teaching.

Sobel, an associate professor of biological sciences/evolutionary genetics at Harpur College, grew up in Southern Michigan where he was always interested in natural history, the outdoors and identifying different species of insects, animals and plants.

“When we’d go camping, I’d have special notebooks to write down all the insects species I found or all the snakes I found,” Sobel said.

Sobel’s childhood passions would dictate the interests he would pursue as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University. He studied biochemistry and microbiology, and worked at a pharmaceutical company as an intern to gain a variety of different experiences in molecular protocols.

Five years after undergrad, Sobel landed in graduate school at Michigan State University. He wrote his dissertation on the speciation of a group of North American wild flowers that were all located in the same geographic area in California.

“I got really interested in the general processes of how species form and how they adapt to their location and environments,” Sobel said.

Sobel’s first experience in front of the classroom came as a teacher’s assistant while at Michigan State. He was confident in his knowledge and was chomping at the bit to start, but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing at first.

“My first TA assignment, I was sort of terrified,” Sobel said. “To be thrown in front of a bunch of students and be told ‘go teach’ is really intimidating.”

Still, while other teacher assistants would stick to one subject they knew well, Sobel tried to teach every course available to him as his passion and curiosity outweighed his fears. Throughout graduate school, Sobel had an increasing interest in conducting a classroom.

“I was surprised by how much I enjoyed (teaching),” Sobel said. “I just wanted to try and teach everything, so I TA’d for genetics and evolution and ecology and a tropical biology course and basically, anything I could get my hands on.”

Sobel wanted to find a place where he could do some of the best research in the world and have the facilities to accommodate that. At the same time, he also wanted the opportunity to teach at a high level at a place that would appreciate it.

In Binghamton, Sobel got both.

“It’s pretty unique. Most places will choose one or the other to focus on and it’s been clear to me that Binghamton wants to be a top-notch research school, but its undergrads are clearly its bread and butter,” Sobel said. “That was what drew me — the balance between (teaching and research) and not having to trade off one for the other.”

In his first year at Harpur College, Sobel is already reaping the benefits of the perfect equilibrium. He’s got enough time to teach his class, Genetics of Adaptation and Speciation, and also set up his lab to begin his research.

Still, while Sobel admitted that he’s found a “dream situation” in Binghamton, he also said that the students he’s encountered in Harpur College have only reinforced his decision to come to New York.

“A lot of the students I’ve worked with in the past are plenty curious, and that’s something I can do a lot with,” he said. “But without the ambition and energy to back it up, it can fizzle. That’s something I’ve noticed so far: Students here are of high-ability level, and they’re also willing to do the work that they need to in order to be successful.”

“You can’t find that just anywhere.”

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Last Updated: 3/26/14