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Professor evolves with his research and teachings

Ecology and Evolution Professor Michael Bell has been teaching Stony Brook University students for decades, and constantly learns new things about his field as he goes along. (Photo Credit: Gavin Stern)

Ecology and Evolution Professor Michael Bell, 64, wears a Hawaiian shirt to work every day.

“My wife likes them,” he said, “and I love my wife.” Stacks of books nearly reach to the ceiling of Bell’s windowless basement office. An Alaska license plate hangs above the door. The contents of his adjacent laboratory spill into the office area — fossils, preserved fish and insects, capped vials and weathered metal traps. Asked for a look at his book, “The Evolutionary Biology of the Three-spined Stickleback,” Bell leaps onto his desk. His heels rise out of his sandals as he reaches for the very top shelf.

Before his feet touch the floor, the book is opened to photographs of the stickleback fish. The fish are important, he said, because when a population of sticklebacks moves from saltwater to freshwater, the fish lose their pelvic bones within a few decades. That’s evolution.

Every summer, Bell handpicks students to come up to Alaska to catch and research the three-inch long stickleback fish. In 2005, Bell invited Ericka Kalabaca, then a pre-medical student, to spend five weeks studying the armor structure of the stickleback. Kalabaca, now a family medicine resident at North Shore-LIJ Plainview Hospital, joined Bell’s lab because she wanted a unique research experience. She got it.

In Alaska, the students helped set the traps, picked up the fish and performed in vitro fertilization. Kalabaca described Bell as “very carefree, down to earth, and always there when you needed him.” He was like a father figure to the students, she said. Bell trusted his students and didn’t micromanage, but he expected them to be home for dinner, which he cooked. When the undergraduate students graduated, Bell held a party at his home in Stony Brook.

Bell began researching the three-spined stickleback when, as a young student at UCLA, he called the wrong researcher while looking for a science project. Soon, he was hooked. Bell built his career on the behavior, genetics and evolution of that one tiny lake fish. Eventually, evolutionary biologists realized that the stickleback fish is a good candidate for the “model organism,” alongside mice and rats.

“I wish I could say I was brilliant,” Bell said. “I got lucky.”

Originally from Brooklyn, Bell grew up almost entirely in suburban Los Angeles, near open land. “I always liked living things,” Bell said. “As soon as I was fast enough to catch small bugs, I caught them and put them in a jar.” In particular, Bell liked to catch lizards — alive. But if one died, he might have cut it open to see what was inside.

Bell’s father ran a furniture business and owned a factory while his mother was an office manager in a department store. When Bell was 12, construction began on a freeway near his parent’s house. The excavation of the rock revealed a trove of marine fossils. That experience inspired Bell to become the first scientist in his family. He attended UCLA for his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees before coming to Stony Brook as an assistant professor in 1978.

Bell has three grown children from his first marriage and one stepchild. His oldest son works for a reinsurance company; his next oldest is an assistant professor of political science at Kansas State University and his daughter, the youngest, is an administrative assistant at a water recycling agency. His stepson is a lawyer. Bell doesn’t get to see his children often, but he’s proud of that. “The real measure of how well your kids have done is they’re too busy to see you,” Bell said.

Bell’s energy may seem limitless to those around him, but that was not always the case. Bell hit a rough patch during the early 1990s. After his book on the stickleback was published, a difficult divorce distracted Bell from his work. “My first wife thought my research was number one,” Bell said. “It wasn’t true.” During that difficult period, Bell said, he wrote poor grant proposals that led to the rejection of his research grants. The lack of funding was devastating. Bell saw the rejection as a sign that he couldn’t do research anymore. He decided to quit.

“He talked about it a lot,” said Jessica Gurevitch, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolution. “It was very clear he was having a very rough time.” But while Bell was about to give up, members of the department, especially former chair James Rolfe, who had hired him in 1978, pushed for Bell to revise and resubmit the grant proposal. This time, he got funded.

“The decision to pack it in was traumatic,” Bell said. Because he already made peace with the decision to give up research, “it was very hard to resurrect enthusiasm for the work.” The rebuilding process took more than a year.

Around that time, he married his current wife, Cynthia, a novelist who has published more than 50 books, including mystery novels, summer reads and novels for teenage girls. Cynthia is a grounding force for Bell’s scientific enthusiasm. “Mike always wants to talk science. Cynthia talks about other things,” said Peter Park, a former student who came to Bell’s lab as an undergraduate and completed his doctorate with Bell. When Bell and his wife sit together, they hold hands, Park said.

Bell has taught the same two classes, Darwinian Evolution and Chordate Zoology, for decades. “He loves teaching his courses and wants to keep teaching the same ones,” Gurevitch said.

Bell expects a lot from his students, said graduate assistant and doctoral candidate Caitlin Fisher-Reid. She recalled that at the beginning of his class on Darwinian Medicine, Bell informs his undergraduates, “You’re in competition with your classmates.” He reads letters from disgruntled students and explains his expectations. For exams, Bell favors short answer and essay questions over multiple-choice. The average on the first midterm is 60 percent. And yet, his classes almost always fill up.

Unlike most modern biology courses, in which instructors use PowerPoint slides, Bell still lectures from a chalkboard. “I have to run through a bunch of terminology, unfortunately,” Bell said at the beginning of his Darwinian Medicine lecture on phylogeny.

From memory, he fills the board with graphs and evolutionary trees. The small auditorium is full. Eighty students scramble to write down every morsel. Bell frequently stops to pose questions. The students answer back. Once finished with the terminology, Bell demonstrates the common structures of bat and bird wings using his own arm.

“Bell’s teaching style reminds me of high school,” said Siddarth Kuchibhotla, a senior biology undergraduate. “He talks and we have to write it down. Then he waits. It’s more challenging that way.”

Donna DiGiovanni has worked for Stony Brook University since graduating with a biology degree in 1981. She took Bell’s Chordate Zoology course in 1980. “He uses the chalkboard to keep the lecture more personal,” she said. Even though graduate students taught the laboratory component, she said, Bell still came by to assist his undergraduates.

Bell described his early work as “low-hanging fruit” because it was based on what he happened to find in the field. But as molecular biology and the study of genetics advanced, that work became the foundation for more general theories. Eventually, he said, the right people found him based on what they had read in his book. Bell now collaborates with molecular biologists at Stanford to examine the genetic code of the stickleback. But while he’s proud to show that his fossils are used as the best example in biology textbooks, his most enduring final product may be the many young scientists he’s influenced.

“If not for Mike, I would not be where I am,” Park said. Park is now an assistant professor of biology at Nyack College in Rockland County. “He believed in me before I believed in myself.”

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