Injured Genetics Professor Substituted, Enrollment Plummets

By: Yardena Katz  |  December 28, 2016

yardena_geneticsAs Stern’s Biology Department Head, Professor Harvey Babich, continues to recover from a serious October car accident, his spring Genetics course will adopt a new professor for the first time in decades. The 4-credit advanced biology course has been led almost exclusively by the beloved professor since 1987. A mandatory component of the Biology major and a highly recommended preparatory class for pre-med students, the lecture will now be taught by Professor Ronit Lebor and the lab by longtime instructor Professor Mana Mirjany.

Many science majors and pre-meds who had originally planned on taking Genetics this spring have expressed reluctance to test their luck in the course as it experiences new leadership. Unpredictable testing formats and reformed syllabi are jarring for many to imagine. With the formal registration period over, Genetics has a mere 18 of its 40 available spots filled. In previous semesters, only students slated for earlier registration times have managed to secure coveted seats in the maximum capacity class.

“We are very confident that the students in Genetics are receiving a solid course, and are covering the required material,” assured Associate Dean Ethel Orlian. “The detailed syllabi of both lecture and lab were made available to the instructors, and are being followed to ensure the integrity of the course.” Both professors filled Babich’s vacancy immediately following his injury in October, and will continue in their respective roles this spring.

Other students feel that the change in teachers will have little impact on their ability to appreciate and succeed in the curriculum. “I don’t know Professor Babich, so I can’t really compare the different styles,” said Haley Kandelshein. “I don’t really have any expectations as to how the new teacher will be, but I don’t mind change. I need Genetics for the Biology major, so I was going to take it regardless of who the teacher was.”

Students who experienced the mid-semester switch seem mostly satisfied with Stern’s management of the situation. “It was an interesting transition, because all of us had this idea of how we were going to study for Babich by practicing with his old exams,” said a student. “The school did their best to make it the easiest transition for us. Professor Lebor made us slideshows and Professor Mirjany for lab was a sweetheart, and did her best to stick to Professor Babich’s syllabus. The downside was not getting back our lab midterms, finals and work, so I have no idea what my final grade for lab might be. But all in all, it was a good transition given the circumstances.”

Given Lebor’s familiarity with the Genetics curriculum from her instruction of its fall 2014 lab and Mirjany’s experience teaching Biology Principles labs at Stern since fall 2012, both came highly recommended by veteran Biology faculty. Lebor has an MS in Human Genetics from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Biology from Stern, and Mirjany has a PhD in Neuroscience from Einstein, an MSc in Molecular Genetics, and a BSc in Genetics. “Ms. Lebor was most gracious, and despite the absence of any lead time, agreed to rearrange her schedule to cover the course. Dr. Mirjany, too, rose to the occasion, and was able to successfully step into the position,” said Orlian.

For many, Babich’s temporary absence is dismaying for reasons beyond the shifting course logistics. Known for his approachability and commitment to students, Babich is the faculty supervisor of the annually published student journal Derech Hateva: A Journal of Torah and Science, and has mentored countless students as they have navigated career choices, graduate school applications and Honors theses. Though he himself retired from a prolific research career in toxicology years ago, Babich has helped many students pursue coveted research and clinical opportunities.

“Last year, I was having a lot of angst with my major and career options,” said Chani Grossman. “He spent time with me going over what he knew and could help me with… I could tell that he really cared to make sure that everything worked out in the best possible way for me.” Added Elana Perlow, “Dr. Babich’s top priority is always his students… He consistently goes above and beyond to help Stern students get a step closer to their dreams.”

Alumna Chaya Dachoh had similar sentiments: “Dr. Babich is one of the most caring, understanding, fascinating teachers… He always has a smile on his face and remembers every student, even from previous years.” Adi Berman, who spearheaded an effort to purchase a gift and donate to charity in Babich’s honor, along with fellow alumna Melissa Rex, noted that the initiative was true to Dr. Babich’s own generous character.

After delivering the gift to Babich on behalf of dozens of Stern students, Microbiology professor Dr. Alyssa Schuck shared, “I gave Dr. Babich the gifts and cards that you all sent. I think he was really touched. He got a kick out of the tie, and every time a new visitor came, he proudly showed him/her the scroll that said that you all donated money in his honor to the tzedaka fund. He texted me again tonight to please thank you all.”

As Prof. Babich’s absence continues to be felt academically and interpersonally, students are welcome to pray for him using the name Yosef ben Feygel Esther. Though the Genetics course will take an unprecedented form in the spring, for many there is hope that Babich’s decades-long development of the course has laid a strong foundation for his substitutes’ success.