One day when he was a six-year-old boy growing up in a rural suburb of Minneapolis, Steven James brought home a garter snake. It's a reasonable enough thing for a curious six-year-old boy to do, and his mother's response qualified as equally appropriate mom behavior. "She screamed, "Get that thing out of the house!¹" he recalls, "and then she called my father."
When Dad came home, however, young Steven (and his mom) were in for a surprise. Rather than yell and take his son out behind the woodshed, he opened the trunk of his car to reveal a new aquarium and a book about snakes. A lifelong fascination with biology was underway.
In the years that followed, several mentors would help cultivate that fascination. When he was a student at Gettysburg in the mid-1970s, Steven was taken under the wing of a number of influential professors, none of whom made a bigger impact than biology professor Ralph Cavaliere. "I took Biology of Fungi from him sophomore year," he recalls. "I looked at a group of organisms I had never imagined before, and I was absolutely captivated. Not just by the fungi, but by his passion for the fungi and the way he taught the course."
That experience was a defining moment for Steven, who went on to get a Ph.D. and is now Professor Steven James in the Gettysburg biology department, a fungal biologist with an office down the hall from his number-one mentor.
And he's doing his best to create similarly defining moments for his students today.
Professor James' packed resume is a window into a prolific professional life filled with presentations, publications, and research grants. But what jumps out at you when you look at that resume, under the category of "recent publications," are the names of 17 Gettysburg undergraduates who have been his co-authors.
Professor James and his students are examining cell division in Aspergillus nidulans¿the fungus you¹d find in common bread mold¿and he's pretty excited about the direction the research is heading. The basic machinery of cell division in fungi is the same as it is in humans, though with fungi it's a lot easier and faster to study. Professor James has found a gene in the fungus that appears to inhibit DNA synthesis, which is a crucial step in cell division. Because cancer is basically unregulated cell division, this could have huge implications for our understanding of cancer and how to treat it. It's important work, and at every step, his students are right there beside him.
"We really think we¹ve stumbled onto something new," Professor James says.
"I depend on the students. They are doing the research that leads to these discoveries."
They are also learning to think like professional molecular biologists.
They're learning essential research skills, including things like patience and how to cope with disappointment when something doesn¹t work as planned.
They're getting experience and qualifications that will get them into top graduate schools. And in the process, Professor James says, "They are gaining confidence that this is what they really want to do with their lives."