Biologist Tim Stearns presides over Stanford’s 2019-20 Faculty Senate
Biologist Tim Stearns, who joined the Stanford faculty in 1993 and is chair of the Faculty Senate, says an undergraduate course in genetics ignited his passion for molecular biology – and set him on the path to academia.
When Tim Stearns realized he had to winnow his book collection last spring in preparation for the move to the new Bass Biology Research Building, he knew one book would definitely make the cut – a 40-year-old copy of Genetics.
Stearns said the textbook, which claims a place of honor on the top shelf of the bookcase in his new office, takes him back to his sophomore year of college and the course that ignited his passion for molecular biology – and set him on the path to academia.
Today, Stearns is the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor in the Department of Biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and a professor in the Department of Genetics in the School of Medicine. He is also a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute, a community of scientists and physicians from a wide range of disciplines working to reduce the burden of cancer, and Bio-X, the university’s interdisciplinary biosciences institute.
Stearns, who has served as chair of the Biology Department since September 2014, took on an added responsibility during the 2019-20 academic year as chair of the Faculty Senate.
Wielding the gavel
As the chair of the Faculty Senate, Stearns presides over an august body: 57 voting members, including professors from all seven schools, and 16 ex officio members, including the president, provost and school deans.
He was familiar with the work of the senate, having served as senator for several years and also having served as chair of its Committee on Review of Undergraduate Majors.
Stearns knew the senate would be considering several important topics this year, including faculty proposals that seek to renew undergraduate education at Stanford. One proposal focuses on a common first-year experience and the other focuses on new parameters for the undergraduate major. The proposals are part of the university’s Long-Range Vision, which will guide Stanford’s priorities over the coming years.
In late October, Stearns presided over a meeting kicking off the faculty review process for the two proposals, which speak to the heart of the university’s mission. Members of the senate will take up those two subjects again this week in small group settings that vary from the usual meeting format. The small groups are designed to give all members the chance to speak and exchange ideas on the proposals.
Stearns’ teaching and research background, especially his passion for undergraduate education, has given him the experience to oversee such discussions.
This year, under his leadership, the senate has also tackled the future of the Stanford University Press, sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus, teaching line appointments, and the status of fellows at designated policy centers and institutes.
“I was aware that there were some of the important issues coming down the road this year,” he said. “I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to opportunities anyway, but it seemed like this would be a particularly interesting year to serve as senate chair.”
The path to academia
Stearns said the path that led to Stanford began during his sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, when he enrolled in a course in genetics.
It was a path that necessitated a change of plans – a move some 250 miles west – when Stearns realized that the university was not the best place to pursue this new-found passion.
“I packed up my 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, left UMass and drove to Ithaca, New York, where I could major in genetics at Cornell University,” he said. “I arrived, got a job as a cook in a restaurant and applied to transfer to Cornell – fortunately, they accepted me!”
Stearns said it was an exciting time to be studying genetics.
“The recombinant DNA revolution was still in its early stages, having begun only 10 years earlier at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco,” he said. “This new ability to clone pieces of DNA from any organism soon led to methods to change the genetic material of organisms – make mutations – to figure out how cells and organisms worked.”
With a work-study grant in hand, Stearns left his restaurant job and identified the place he wanted to work at Cornell – a molecular genetics lab. As a research assistant, he spent about half his time assisting graduate students and postdoctoral scholars on their projects in the lab – isolating mitochondrial DNA from yeast cells – and the other half working on a research project of his own.
“For me, working in the lab was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I realized research in molecular biology was what I was really excited about – coming up with a clever experiment that will answer an interesting question is still one of my favorite things about being a research scientist.”
Soon, Stearns was packing his VW Bug again – this time for the move to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where he joined the PhD program in biology.
Racing motorcycles, learning knife skills
Stearns said that his experiences growing up on Long Island, New York, stimulated his interest in science, though indirectly.
His father sold office equipment during the week, but on weekends he and Stearns were immersed in hobbies – launching model rockets, racing slot cars and flying remote-controlled airplanes. Stearns also inherited an interest in motorcycle riding from his father, and as a teenager spent a lot of time racing dirt bikes – or, as Stearns put it: “wrecking them on weekends and fixing them during the week.”
It was a hobby that fed his fascination with understanding the way things worked.
During high school, Stearns worked as a line cook in a Spanish restaurant, where he said he “learned to handle a chef’s knife and to speak very impolite Spanish,” and as a jack-of-all-trades in a plant nursery, where he sold shrubs, drove the forklift and tended to the two llamas that were kept in the yard to amuse customers.
“If you’re curious about chemistry or nature, both jobs stimulate that interest,” he said.
Moving across the country
After earning a doctorate in 1988, Stearns joined a small troupe of researchers who followed MIT Professor David Botstein – his thesis advisor – to Genentech, a biotechnology company headquartered in South San Francisco, California.
This time, Stearns packed a VW Fox, which he described as “small as a Bug, but somewhat more reliable,” to make the cross-country trip with his wife, Sue Cleveland, a fellow Cornell graduate who is now a clinical research coordinator in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.
After spending a year at Genentech, the next step for Stearns was a 3½-year postdoctoral fellowship in cell biology at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School.
He joined the Stanford faculty as an assistant professor of biology in 1993, setting up his own lab in Gilbert Hall.
In the Stearns Lab, he oversees an interdisciplinary team investigating how centrosomes and cilia, specialized structures within cells, control cell function and influence development, and how defects in these structures cause a remarkable array of human diseases, ranging from cancer, polycystic kidney disease and obesity to neurocognitive defects, including mental retardation, schizophrenia and dyslexia.
At Stanford, Stearns discovered he enjoyed teaching – especially the immediate positive feedback he got when confusion blossomed into comprehension on the faces of students in the classroom.
In 2002, he joined the first cohort of HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) Professors, accomplished research scientists who are also deeply committed to creating effective ways to engage undergraduates in science. Under a four-year grant, each HHMI Professor receives $1 million to improve undergraduate science education at their institutions.
“Having the opportunity to benefit from the largesse of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and to be able to define myself as an educator as well as a researcher changed the course of my career in a positive way,” Stearns said.