A Tradition of Excellence

drParham1A 1996 alumnus of the Geology Department, Dr. James Parham says he flourished as an undergrad at URI, guided by top-notch professors and mentors – an experience that left an indelible mark on his career as a scientist and educator.

He discovered one of those mentors, Professor Robert Shoop, within URI’s Zoology department. At the time, Professor Shoop was conducting research on Cumberland Island (off the coast of Georgia, USA) and he invited Parham to join him.

“We drive out to this little airfield where Professor Shoop explains how we have to fly out to Cumberland Island. So I get in the back of a tiny airplane and Bob hops up front. Now, I figure we are waiting for the pilot to show up when he starts fiddling with the controls. I’m almost to the point of saying ‘hey, I don’t think you should be doing that’ when suddenly the plane starts moving and we take off for Cumberland Island. At the island there’s this little airstrip with a bunch of wild horses blocking our landing. So we do a fly by while doing this horn thing to scare off the animals, and I’m like, what the hell is going on! As you can imagine, he just blew my world wide open. You know, what a great professor!”

Now, in his own tenure-track position in the Department of Geological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton, Parham has carved out a reputation as a brilliant researcher, a highly respected teacher, and has gained national attention for aiding in the discovery of several new species (see Legless Lizard discovery at http://nbcnews.to/1luRgfx). These new species were found within human-impacted areas of California, which makes this discovery significant by suggesting that a range of biodiversity remains undocumented within our own country.

Unfortunately, Parham acknowledges that much of this diversity is rapidly disappearing, which makes his research that much more important.

“Due to human activities, it is becoming harder and harder to know what is ‘natural’” explains Parham. “Species are going extinct, getting moved around, and hybridizing. Therefore, reconstructing natural patterns of biodiversity is becoming really important to our conservation efforts.”

drParham2Today, it is literally a race against time for Parham and his collaborators. “This is the situation we are in: the world is changing very rapidly with population growth and climate change,” said Parham. “So, this is what we need, or at least what I think we need. We need people out there, muddy boots, finding stuff. And it’s not just in the rainforest, but also in the fields and parking lots around Bakersfield, and in the swamps of Jamaica. We need people scratching out and getting these samples. It’s all about the specimens, and we need to get them now. If we don’t do it now, we won’t be able to do it later,” he added.

In addition to his enthusiasm for research, Parham helps to ignite the curiosity of future scientists through his teaching.  “These days, my main job is training students to study fossils,” said Parham.  “In Orange County we have a lot of fossils that have never been studied, so I was hired to lead the research on the paleontology and to get university students involved” said Parham.

It’s a passion for student engagement and mentorship that began for him at URI and heightened under the advisement of Geology Professor David Fastovsky.

“The very first time we met, he gave me a talk that I still give to all of my students who want to go into Paleontology: ‘Oh you want to do Paleontology. Well, let me tell you about Paleontology. There are no jobs in Paleontology. If you want to do Paleontology you have to be the best, you have to get straight As, you need to publish papers, you need to do this, that, and that. If you graduate with Bs you aren’t going to be able to make it into a good graduate school,’ and he was absolutely right,” said Jim.

It’s the kind of tough love that encourages students to aim for high goals. As Parham’s career demonstrates, it’s clearly a method for success.   “I am a proud Rhody Ram,” said Parham. “I was heavily influenced by professors when I was an undergraduate at URI, so I feel proud to be continuing in that tradition.”