Stephen Stearns — Bio

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The first sign now Professor Stephen Stearn’s was fascinated with organisms involved four-year-old Stearns chasing an adult male parrot fish in the waters of Mahukona off Hawaii’s big island with his mother racing to catch him. 

A small kid bullied in elementary school, Stearns retreated into science. Before the age of ten, he’d read Roy Chapman Andrew’s All About Dinosaurs and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. By the time he entered his teens, he knew about many of Hawaii’s adaptive radiations and was familiar with local flora and fauna, having traveled up into the mountains to explore the nature. He came to Yale for undergraduate studies in the early sixties, starting in Directed Studies and declaring an English major before his dad convinced him, after Stearns worked at an Alaskan Salmon Fishery for a summer and expressed interest in a job at Sea Life Park, that he should probably be a Biology major.

He caught up in his course work and continued onto graduate school in Marine Biology at UCSD on a NSF graduate fellowship. Only six short weeks later, he dropped out, disillusioned with being occupied by courses for years before starting research and how little his classmates seemed to care about the science. 

Stearns went back to Hawaii and ran a team of programmers in an IT department for a few years before getting fed up with a value system centered around profit, but this gave him the opportunity to grow up and learn to face failure. He applied to graduate school again and began at Wisconsin in 1970. After getting a Master’s, he realized his interests weren’t well served there, and he went to the University of British Columbia to finish his PhD after marrying Beverly Stearns, a journalist and photographer. 

Early on at UBC, a trusted professor advised him to spend around a year, roughly a quarter of his time in the program, reading and thinking before choosing his PhD project. He presented his proposal 18 months later in 1973 on three potential projects related to Life History Evolution. The presentation was received poorly by a particular cancer research professor who started the questions with “This proposal is bad science and bad philosophy… Defend yourself.” He narrowly passed, with the committee unsure of whether he was a fool or a genius. Part of the proposal was later reformatted, published, and cited ~4000 times, helping establish the field of Life History Evolution. 

After finishing postdoctoral studies at UC Berkeley, where he wrote Modest Advice, a piece including some quick wisdom for graduate students that became a quick classic, Stearns began an assistant professorship at Reed College. After being told he would not receive tenure there (which he later learned to be largely out of personal vendetta, he transferred to a job in Europe, where he had attended a number of important conferences, at the University of Basel. 

He struggled for years to comfortably teach in formal German and remained challenged by the variety of European languages used to discuss science through the rest of his time across the Atlantic. Here, in addition to performing research, Stearns developed a number of courses with unique learning infrastructure, which are now documented very well on his website. After a restructuring of the University of Basel and the relocation of his two sons, Justin and Jason, to the United States for college, he began looking for work back in the states. After running into an old friend, Gunter Wagner, a Yale professor, at a conference, he applied for a job at Yale. 

Stephen Stearns is now the Edward P Bass Professor of and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale. Much of this was paraphrased from, where there is much more about Professor Stearns’ life, career, and advice for scientists.

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