New professors hired after major Biology faculty departures

With four of its ten faculty members out for the Fall semester, the Biology department – the College’s second largest by majors- is scrambling this summer to patch up its department in time for students’ return.

Earlier this spring, the department announced that professor Jenni Punt BMC ’83 and professor Andrea Morris ’91 had accepted positions at Columbia University in New York City. Additionally, assistant professor Rachel Hoang, recently tenured, will be on sabbatical while associate professor Iruka Okeke is scheduled to be out for maternity leave. Professor Robert Fairman is also serving double duty as professor and Associate Provost, and has consequently scaled back to teaching part-time.

Last month, Professor and interim department chair Judith Owen announced that temporary, full-time replacements for Punt and Morris have officially been hired: Justine Melo, of Massachusetts General Hospital, will take over Punt’s lab and a set of advisees, and Mike Grider, a neurobiologist and postdoctoral fellow from Baylor University, will take over Morris’ lab and advisees.

Three visiting professors are in the process of being hired, as of late July.

Punt has been named Associate Dean for Student Research, and Morris was selected to be Assistant Dean of Academic Diversity for the University. In addition to her administrative work, Punt intends to proceed with her research in stem cell biology at the school, according to an email to Biology majors in April. Stephen Emerson ’74, former president and Biology professor as well as Punt’s husband, also works as director of Columbia’s Cancer Center.

Morris’s deanship at Columbia, which was not announced until late in the Spring 2013 semester, came as a surprise to students, some of whom had expected to conduct their thesis research under her supervision. Punt served as the advisor to pre-veterinary students. Morris was also the department specialist in neurobiology, a concentration pursued by about 16 students each year.

“Everyone is doing their best to show the [Biology] students that they have everything under control, which they do, but it’s hard as a student not to worry,” said Jonah Binstock ’14, a pre-vet Biology major and one of Morris’ thesis advisees.

This influx of new blood to the department is unsettling to many students, like Natasha Stanley ’15, who just declared as a Biology major this spring.

“It is strange for the rising juniors because we have only just had [Punt, Hoang, Okeke, and Morris] as our professors and now they won’t be back for the coming semester. It will be as if we are new to the department,” Stanley said in an email. “The incoming professors have big shoes to fill.”

In the meantime, remaining faculty are picking up the extra slack.

As part of the department’s protocol, all new professors are assigned a permanent faculty mentor who will co-teach their classes.

“We work so closely with students, so it’s really in everyone’s best interest that [visiting] professors come in and do a bang-up job,” said Professor Phil Meneely.

Owen feels that the department has done much to address student concerns about the transition, including student input about the temporary hires. Three finalists, out of 25 total applicants, for the full-time positions were brought to campus for extended interviews this summer, and local students, like Binstock, were able to have lunch with and attend a presentation by these scientists, and express their opinions of the candidates to the department.

“I was able to play a large role in who was decided to be my thesis advisor, and I’m happy with the outcome,” says Binstock.

Haverford doesn’t immediately search for new, permanent replacements when losing tenure-track faculty, said Owens in a phone interview. In the first few weeks after their departure, professors are granted a grace period to return to their position, should circumstances, such as spousal unemployment, change.

Tenure-track positions also aren’t necessarily returned to the department from which a professor departs. Instead, departments must submit a proposal to the Educational Policy Committee that makes the case for why they should retain the position and detail qualifications for the new hire. Only after EPC approval can an official search begin.

While no formal meetings have taken place yet – the grace period for Punt and Morris is still in effect – Owen believes this is an exciting chance for the department to progress.

“This is an opportunity for people who are left behind to think about the structure of biology these days, and how to make that reflective in the department,” says Owen.

Both Owen and Meneely say the department is strongly considering a neurobiologist to supervise students in the concentration. But they remain uncertain which other specialties, such as immunology or environmental biology, would most benefit and interest students.

“Biology is a rapidly changing field,” said Meneely. “The rate of change is incredible.”

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