Gary James named distinguished service professor

Anthropology professor to also receive national Franz Boas Award for research achievements

Gary James, graduate director of the biomedical anthropology program, works with students Zara Shah, left, and Jane Pechera in Science 1. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Gary James, graduate director of the biomedical anthropology program, works with students Zara Shah, left, and Jane Pechera in Science 1.
Gary James, graduate director of the biomedical anthropology program, works with students Zara Shah, left, and Jane Pechera in Science 1. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

Gary James was admittedly unsure before opening an email he received from President Harvey Stenger on a Friday night late last month.

“There is never any good news on a Friday evening,” said James, a professor of anthropology, nursing and biomedical engineering. “That’s usually when people dump stuff. But I opened the email and said ‘Wow!’”

James was informed that the SUNY Board of Trustees was appointing him to distinguished service professor for his “exemplary service to Binghamton University, the medical community of the Binghamton region and to national professional societies through editorial services, scholarship and leadership.”

He is one of only three SUNY faculty members promoted to the distinguished service professorship this fall. To receive the honor, candidates must demonstrate “substantial distinguished service not only at the campus and SUNY level, but also at the community, regional and state levels. Further, many candidates for appointment have rendered influential service contributing at the national and international levels.”

The service recognition came two days after James learned that he will receive a national award for his research career and scientific achievements. The Human Biology Association will present James with the Franz Boas Distinguished Achievement Award at its annual meeting next spring in Austin, Texas.

“This was my Fred Flintstone moment,” James said. “I said: ‘Yabba dabba doo!’”

James is the third current Binghamton University professor to win the Boas Award: Michael Little, a distinguished professor of anthropology, and Ralph Garruto, honorary distinguished professor of biomedical anthropology, both won the award in 2005.

“It will be an honor to be in the same breath as those guys,” James said.

James came to Binghamton University in 1998 after spending nearly 15 years at the Cornell University Medical College.

“I look back on the opportunity I had when I came here,” he said. “I wasn’t in the Department of Anthropology. I was in the Decker School of Nursing and it was starting a PhD program.”

James, who initially trained 10 nursing PhD students, said the attraction of developing the program in a central location for his family was just one of Binghamton University’s appeals.

“A lot of things came together to bring me here,” he said. “The reputation helped, too. People thought of Binghamton as a ‘public Ivy school.’ So I thought: ‘This seems like a no-brainer.’”

James became an internationally known human population biologist, specializing in areas such as stress and blood pressure research. In 2009, his work in the classroom earned him the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

His record of service, meanwhile, includes leading the University’s Institutional Review Board for six years; chairing the Faculty Senate Executive Committee for two years; directing the biomedical anthropology graduate program; taking part in nine administrative search committees; helping to grow the Health Sciences transdisciplinary area of excellence (TAE) and the Freshman Research Immersion (FRI); and serving on four dozen dissertation committees.

In the community, James assists residents and practicing physicians in designing and conducting research, and he has served on the United Health Services’ Institutional Review Board for more than a decade. His professional service includes leading the national Human Biological Association and reviewing papers for more than 40 journals.

“The contributions Professor James has made as a biomedical anthropologist and biomedical scientist are unparalleled, touching students, colleagues, Binghamton University, and individuals and communities around the globe,” Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Nieman wrote.

James’ nomination letter to SUNY also featured a colleague’s observation: “Dr. James never seems to turn down an opportunity to serve the campus when called upon to do so. He is also never just a member; he lends his knowledge, insights and creativity to fostering productive work by the group.”

For James, service is not something one aspires to. It is, however, part of giving back.

“Things have to get done,” he said. “When you are asked to do something, you could sit back and say no. But what good is that? … You do your job. I guess that as a distinguished service professor, the recognition is you have done all of that, but you have gone far beyond what is expected.”

Earning the distinguished service professorship and the Boas Award made for what James called one of the best weeks of his life.

“Being recognized for my teaching, research and service – what can I say? It makes me feel good. I’m glad that people are seeing what I’m doing.”

Posted in: Campus News, Decker, Harpur