Faculty Spotlight: James Schnable

James Schnable
In his role as associate professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, James Schnable (right) works with the Quantitative Life Sciences Initiative, the Center for Plant Science Innovation, and the Nebraska Food for Health Center.

What is your position at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln?

I'm an associate professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. I work with the Quantitative Life Sciences Initiative, the Center for Plant Science Innovation, and the Nebraska Food for Health Center.

What drew you to the University of Nebraska—Lincoln? 

I enjoy figuring out how plants perceive and respond to their environments, particularly because that logic and reasoning is hardwired into them at a genetic level. The people in Lincoln, from the administration to my colleagues, the undergraduates with research projects in my lab, my new neighbors and the people I meet in the grocery store, they all, on a fundamental level, get and understand why research in those crops is important to all of us. I've lived in a lot of places in the USA and so far, in my experience, that level of understanding and support is unique to Lincoln, Nebraska. 

 

What aspect of working in an educational setting do you enjoy the most?

Getting to see those first few weeks when a student, usually someone interested in biology, is first learning to use computer programming to address biological questions. One undergraduate in my lab described it as feeling like he suddenly had super powers, work that would have taken him weeks to do by hand or in excel was suddenly something he could teach the computer how to do for him in a matter of minutes. 

 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The thing I am most proud of since coming to UNL is starting to see different biologists, engineers and statisticians who first met each other through collaborations with me, people who probably never would have known each other even working on the same campus otherwise, who are now writing grants and papers together and coming up with ideas and research projects that not one of them would have the right skills and expertise to execute on their own. It is both thrilling and gratifying to think that even if tomorrow I disappeared these new collaborations would likely still continue on for years to come, making scientific discoveries that otherwise might never have happened.

 

What is something that most people don't know about you?

When I first went off to college I was an economics major. I’m really lucky that I got an hourly research assistant job working in a corn genetics lab. It was so much more interesting than my econ classes I ended up dropping my econ courses and changing my major.

 

What is your life like outside of work?

Before I found out about tenure I was doing a pretty poor job of maintaining work life balance. Now that I know I’ll still have a job a year from now, I’m getting to rediscover some old hobbies and explore some new ones. I’m getting to spend a lot more time biking and go out to my fields to try to photograph birds on weekends, and right now I’m at the really wincingly bad stage of trying to learn to play the guitar.