By Lauren Uchiyama, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, ’17
“I chose to write this piece because I felt Dr. Dan Starr is unique in that he is equally passionate about teaching and research. As an undergraduate in his BIS 104 cell biology class, I feel he highlights research well by teaching us from an experimental and historical perspective, which makes learning even more fun and interesting. His reputation as a difficult, yet acclaimed educator has made him one of the most prominent biology professors at UC Davis. I hope you enjoy getting to know him as much as I did!”
Dr. Daniel Starr is a professor and Director of the Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (BMCDB) Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. For the past 14 years here, he has made crucial discoveries on nuclei movement and positioning, studying nuclear envelope KASH and SUN proteins. Though this concept has profound impacts on muscular dystrophy, neuronal development, and cancer, little is known about how these proteins are regulated. In his most recent Development publication, Dr. Starr and his students established an in vivo model to help understand nuclei movement through constricted spaces (1).
In addition to research, Dr. Starr has also established the undergraduate cell biology course, BIS104. He even went on sabbatical to write our online textbook, “Cellular Biology. Experimental Approaches to Cellular Processes and Molecular Medicine.” This textbook contains homework, quizzes and chapter flashcards to ensure students’ understanding of cell biology from an experimental perspective.
I sat down with Dr. Starr to gain insight on his background, career, and interests both in and out of the lab. His passion for academia and family rang clear, and I think everyone can learn a thing or two from him. I know I have.
LU: Where did you do your training?
DS: I grew up in Minneapolis, and went to a small liberal arts school in Maine, called Colby College. Between my junior and senior year, I got an internship at the University of Iowa and worked in a microbiology lab for two months. That’s where I learned research is really fun. I graduated with my PhD from Cornell University where I studied kinetochore proteins and how chromosomes segregate during mitosis. Then as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder I started the work I’m doing right now.
LU: What made you want to pursue research?
DS: I was always encouraged to pursue different things. In hindsight, I’m lucky that it worked out because I went to grad school and I loved it. But, at the time, I had no idea what I was getting into. Part of it was also when I was graduating in the early 90s, the economy was on a downturn and there weren’t a ton of opportunities but grad school was like, we’ll pay you! I’m like, sign me up, where do I go?
LU: What is your favorite part about this career?
DS: This career is many jobs, but is primarily research and teaching. There aren’t many jobs where you can do two different things that feed off of one another. To be able to do two things I love is really lucky.
Even though I only teach BIS104 Winter Quarter, I teach grad students and undergraduates in lab every day, a graduate course for a few weeks, and work on this textbook. My major teaching responsibility is BIS104, but there is all the informal education you do on a campus as well. I’m very proud that the students flock to me in BIS104, and I’m also proud that if you go to ratemyprofessor.com, they think I’m hard. Right? So I’m proud that they think I’m hard and yet still come. So to me, that’s about as good as it gets.
Then at [Colby College], we had real life interactions with people not from our generation, and that’s one of the things I love about being on a college campus. I’m interacting with people daily who aren’t in my generation, and I think it’s really important to keep talking with people who are at different stages in their life.
LU: What is your least favorite part about this job?
DS: There’s a lot of frustration at the slow speed things change at high education, and how hard it is to create change. It’s difficult to push education in the right direction and I tend to spend more time than I should on these things. I get frustrated there are 280 students in my BIS104 class, and I get one TA — that isn’t the way we should be educating the best kids in California. As a taxpayer, there should be smaller classes with more attention so we don’t have to take stupid multiple choice tests. I alone can’t change the course to a class of 75 students.
LU: For what it’s worth, I think BIS104 is structured really well.
DS: Yeah, but I’ve had to work really hard on that.
LU: I mean, you wrote a whole textbook.
DS: Right, so this is a product I’ve been working on for 13 years. I’m doing the best I can with the resources I have to try and deliver you guys the best product because you are the future of California. I do really love teaching BIS104, I just wish I was teaching 50 students with small discussion sections, similar to my journal club.
LU: With all these responsibilities here, how do you balance work and family life?
DS: Part of it is you have to focus and be efficient when you are at work. I put family first but that doesn’t mean work is non-existent. I try to limit my trips and build boundaries and limits; this job could take up 90 hours a week if I let it, but I stop it after a reasonable amount of time. This morning, my daughter was presenting at an oral language fair and I just made the decision to come in late because I wanted to hear my daughter give this talk.
LU: What is something that most people don’t know about you?
DS: Well, so in work life balance, there are no hobbies because that’s part of the balance. Hobbies went out the window when I had kids. And after work and life, there’s family and there’s not much other stuff. I have hobbies that aren’t very exciting like golfing, skiing and camping, but I don’t get to do those as much as I want to. I like to read novels. The life of a professor is not usually too exciting outside of being a professor.
LU: Because that is your passion.
DS: Exactly. I mean, my hobby is thinking about science. I don’t think most people realize I wrote the [BIS104] textbook. I didn’t have to do this as part of the job, but I’m really glad I did. It was a great experience and the students seem to respond to it quite well, so it’s been fun. I’ve been trying to get it adopted outside of UC Davis because I want my voice to be heard, and I have a list of topics I’d like to add to the book. It was really important for me to include all the experimental design elements to get students thinking. The students in labs think that way, but the other ones don’t, so I like talking about things from a historical perspective.
LU: What advice do you have for students as they continue their education here at UC Davis?
DS: The biggest thing you need to take advantage of is you need to get into a lab and do research. And it doesn’t matter what the research is on, but this is a major, tier one research institution. I get merits and promotions primarily based on my research, not my teaching. That’s what you can’t do at a CSU or a small liberal arts school. But at UC Davis, there’s this amazing research in all these fields and if you’re not taking advantage of it, you are missing out. The education you get in the lab is way better than you can get in any class.
- Bone, C.R., Chang, Y.T., Cain, N.E., Murphy, S.P. and Starr, D.A. Nuclei migrate through constricted spaces using microtubule motors and actin networks in C. elegans hypodermal cells (2016). Development 143, 4193-4202; http://dev.biologists.org/content/143/22/4193
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Edited by Bukre Coskun, Wren Greaney, & Carly Cheung