Stu Feinstein

Stuart “Stu” Feinstein (46/50)


CCS is honored to showcase 50 individuals and activities during our 50th Anniversary to share our rich history and amazing people responsible for making our unconventional College possible! Return regularly to learn more. 

Stuart “Stu” Feinstein (CCS Biology Faculty) fell in love with the San Francisco Bay Area the moment he moved to California from New Jersey to attend UC Berkeley. After receiving his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at Berkeley, Feinstein remained in the Bay Area while earning his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Biophysics from UC San Francisco and then as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Although sorry to leave the Bay Area, he was delighted to accept a faculty position at UC Santa Barbara in 1986 and has been here ever since. In this CCS 50 for 50, Feinstein shares his childhood love of baseball, his advising philosophy, and much more. Faculty are the soul of CCS, and this 50 for 50 illustrates the passion our faculty have for the College.


CCS: How did you find out about CCS?

Stu Feinstein: I was first introduced to CCS shortly after getting tenure. A couple of CCS faculty introduced me to CCS, initially Armand Kuris and then Kathy Foltz. There was a lot of discussion at the time about CCS Biology students and whether they should enroll in the Introductory Biology Series as second year students (as was the case for L&S students) or alternatively as first year students. I was one of the MCDB faculty teaching the first quarter of the Intro Bio series at the time. We batted the question around for a while and eventually decided to have the first-year CCS students enroll in the class to give it a try and see how they would do….and they did really well. Around this time, I was starting to interact with more and more of the CCS students, and learning a lot from them and about them. They were extremely impressive. One issue that often came up in these conversations was the fact that we recruit all these wonderful students to this small, friendly and even familial College of Creative Studies and then we plunk them down in Campbell Hall with 1000 other students to take Introductory Biology - not exactly the CCS way. So, that's when I initiated my once a week discussion class with just the first year CCS Intro Bio students that operates in parallel with the big Campbell Hall Intro Bio Course in the Fall Quarter. We can discuss lots of material in a much more research-oriented manner and in a more effective manner than is possible in a big room like Campbell Hall.  And we also discusst how new first-year students can better navigate college life and how a university like UCSB operates. There are generally only ten or fifteen students, and it's one of the most fun things I do in the classroom all year.

I have also come to genuinely appreciate the CCS philosophy of flexibility and providing one-on-one advising for our highly motivated students to assist them with their passions and help guide them where they want to go. I'm always been a big proponent of public education, and big public universities can provide a great educational experience, but it's also easy to see how some students can get lost in the large environment. CCS is a breath of fresh air allowing students into smaller, flexible and custom designed learning environments. It is life changing for some students.


CCS: What led to your insight that CCS students should take Intro Bio during their first year?

SF: Two things. First, the CCS faculty (of which I was not yet a member) had such confidence in the students. Second, my individual and small group interactions with the CCS students. And once I started my CCS Biology 12 weekly discussion class, I was completely sold. The students were really engaged, motivated, and smart—not just taking in information and cataloging it, but actually taking it in and thinking about it and asking great questions that were extrapolations on what we talked about in class and integration of material with other things that they had learned previously. That's real thinking and creativity—the extrapolations and integration. Sometimes it's right and sometimes it’s wrong, but it can be wrong and still be a really good intellectual exercise. And sometimes the questions require answers that I don’t have in my back pocket. I've said to CCS students, more than any other group of students, 'I don't know the answer to that, let me look it up and I'll get back to you next week.' Or, 'Come back to my office after class and let's see what we can find.' That's important too for the faculty, that is, to be able to say 'I don't know the answer to that question, but I know where we can look it up, or someone who might have an answer.' It requires the same mindset for both the students and the faculty. If I think of the three or four best students I've dealt with in 32 years as a faculty member, they are almost all CCS students, even though the number of CCS students is so much smaller compared to the campus as a whole.


CCS: How does CCS attract this type of student?

SF: I'm speaking mostly from the perspective of a CCS biologist because I don't know as much about the other majors, but I think that a lot of it is the effort by CCS admissions committees to seek out good fits. As you know, CCS students apply to UCSB, but they also need to apply separately to CCS where the CCS admissions committees for each of the majors, comprised of faculty within that major, review the applications and makes the admission decisions. The CCS admissions teams do an outstanding job recognizing individuals who will be a good fit in CCS. It’s someone who is academically excellent, focused on research or a creative endeavor, and has an idea of what he or she wants to accomplish in the world. The College looks for exceptional individuals that fit this flexible learning environment. CCS offers them something special—dedicated faculty/student one-on-one mentoring, summer undergraduate research or creative activities led by faculty, access to undergraduate and graduate courses, an environment in which to challenge oneself without fear of failure (as that is an opportunity itself) and much more.  It’s unique.


CCS: Over the years as an affiliated CCS faculty member, you have taught one class for the incoming class as well as advising students?

SF: That's mostly it. The main things that I do are the CCS Biology 12 class and advising.


CCS: Do you have an approach or philosophy on student advising or is it ad hoc?

SF: It's kind of ad hoc; it must adjust to a student’s needs. I think this is the basic philosophy of all of the CCS faculty, to the best of my knowledge. For example, for some of my advisees, it's straightforward; they should take the Pharmacology series in MCDB. For others, that option is very far off their logical path. So, like all of the CCS faculty advisors, I cater my advising to meet the interests and goals of the students. It’s very hands-on, but very much worth the effort. The goal is to do the best we can to ensure student success.


CCS: Let's talk more about your background. You grew up in New Jersey?

SF: I grew up in Northern New Jersey, within eyeshot of New York City skyline. I also had an older and a younger brother. My parents didn't go to college, so my brothers and I were the first generation in the family to go to college. I really wanted to be a professional baseball player, but towards the end of high school, everyone was continuing to get bigger and faster and better, and I kind of hit my plateau. I had gotten as good as I was going to get. So, I always knew that college was going to by my way out of New Jersey. My older brother was a graduate student at Caltech at the time I was applying to college, and I got into Berkeley and a few other places. I remember asking him where I should enroll. He said I should go to Berkeley because it had one of the strongest Biochemistry departments in the world. So, I went to Berkeley and that was an excellent fit for me. Having grown up in an urban environment, the Berkeley environment on and off campus was not an issue for me. After I graduated I applied to graduate school, and I decided I wasn't leaving the West Coast. I had a number of choices, and I ended up going to UCSF (partly so I could continue to play softball with my undergraduate buddies from Berkeley).  After graduating, I figured I would try to find a good post-doc position in the Bay Area (so I could still continue to play softball with my undergraduate buddies from Berkeley), and ended up at Stanford University. Right around the time I was completing my post-doc and started looking for faculty positions, my older brother got sick. For these family reasons, I felt that I needed to stay within a day's drive of LA where he was located. When a neuroscience faculty position at UCSB got announced, I figured, “What are the chances? That would be perfect for professional and personal reasons.”  But every faculty position usually has hundreds of applicants, so I just thought, “no way is this going to happen, but it can't happen if I don't apply, so I'll apply.” And it all worked out.


CCS: And today, you are Director of the UCSB Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI)?

SF: Co-Director.


CCS: For those who don’t know, what is NRI and what are your responsibilities? How did you get involved with NRI?

SF: When I first got hired, NRI had just been formed. Actually, it wasn't even NRI yet, it was the Institute for Environmental Stress, basically an exercise physiology unit that had been run by one person for many years. He was retired, and UCSB decided neuroscience was a new, cool area, let's go there. I was the first new faculty hired into Neuroscience, joining a few senior neuroscience faculty already on campus and automatically got plugged in to their community. I've been the Associate Director, the Interim Director, the Director, and the Co-Director of NRI over the years. And it is a wonderful position, running an organization like NRI, an organized research unit. Everything we do is targeted towards research and our neuroscience intellectual community. Most of what I do relates to the conduct of research in the NRI labs, which is largely driven by students conducting independent research. Running the NRI is really fun — I get to be the bearer of good tidings a little more often than in most parts of life — I hope to continue in this position until I retire.


CCS: Do you have a moment at UCSB that stands out?

SF: There are a number of them, but I guess the most personally rewarding ones are those special occasions when you do something, often together with other people, and you can see that what you did truly changes a student’s life in some very meaningful way. I’ll spare you the details, but it doesn’t get much better than that.


Professor Feinstein earned the 2017 Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research as well as the UCSB Distinguished Teaching Award some years earlier. He is also the Chair of the CCS 50th Anniversary Committee. He is a former Chair of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and the Co-Director of the Neuroscience Research Institute. Over the years, he has served as a grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Cancer Research Co-ordinating Committee of California and the American Heart Association. He has also conducted manuscript peer-review for dozens of different professional journals.