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Profile: Labs, Linguistics & James Stewart’s ’16 Next Steps

James Stewart '16
James Stewart ’16 explores La Réunion, an island region of France in the Indian Ocean.

James Stewart '16 entered Davidson knowing he wanted to double-major in biology and French, and to study abroad in France.

"Davidson told me, ‘Yeah, it'll be hard, and you'll have to start right away, but it's possible,'" he said. "Davidson made that promise, and then they made it happen."

Stewart's biology advisor Malcolm Campbell, professor and director of the James G. Martin Genomics Program, reflects credit back onto Stewart's own tenacity.

"Because he knew what he wanted, he had to be organized, and he had to know what courses to take and he did that," Campbell said. "He had a plan, he stuck to it, and he made it happen. He's really living out the two subjects that he likes the most."

Campbell was especially impressed that Stewart made good on his plan to find a biology laboratory internship in Tours, France, to cap off his junior year of study abroad in the Davidson program there.

Now, Stewart is applying for a Fulbright Scholarship for HIV/AIDS research in Cameroon, where his linguistic skills will serve him well: Cameroon has some 240 highly local dialects, Stewart said, a linguistic and cultural "Africa in miniature."

His post-grad plan B is to spend a year in La Réunion, the small French territory in the Indian Ocean where the Davidson group traveled together, teaching English to high schoolers in a program led by the French Ministry of Education.

Stewart is certain that the communications skills integral to his French major and to his liberal arts education at Davidson overall will serve him well, wherever he ends up.

"Collaboration between different types of people is essential," he said. "Scientists today are in correspondence with each other around the world on a daily basis."

Mountains to Overseas

A self-proclaimed "mountain boy" who grew up in Hayesville and Franklin, North Carolina, Stewart studied French beginning in sixth grade at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, where there was a strong international presence in the student body.

As a young high school student, he first assumed he would attend a large, faraway, Ivy League university. Now, he's grateful he and Davidson chose each other.

"The Honor Code was important to me, and the tight, closeknit community, and the rigorous academics," he said. He was sitting in Summit Coffeehouse's campus location on Patterson Court, clearly feeling at home.

From the moment he arrived, Stewart got busy exploring the promise of the place. He recalled in particular balancing the rigors of Davidson's storied Humanities Program against the deeply focused lab work of natural science classes.

"That was really good for my brain," he said.

Then came time to get his brain on a plane.

Pourquoi Pas?

Telling tales of his junior year abroad, Stewart needs little encouragement to switch to a comfortably fluent French with his interlocuter, who was also a Davidson French major.

James Stewart '16
James Stewart ’16 perches on the heights at Les Baux de Provence, France.

"Pourquoi pas, hein?" he asked.

Indeed, "why not" was a question that came up throughout Stewart's year of French adventure, of bon pain, bon vin et bons voyages.

His host "parents" were retired, so they had plenty of time to treat him to traditional French cooking lessons, including one for téte de veau. He tried to repay the favor by making Southern cornbread, but that didn't work out so well.

Air fares were cheap, and Ryanair proved as handy as European trains for voyages to a total of 16 European countries. Most of these happened second semester, when Stewart managed to get all his classes scheduled on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Stewart continued his academic progress apace, too. He took classes in contemporary French history, French literary stylistics and metabolic biochemistry, shuttling across town between the faculté de science et techniques and the faculté des arts et sciences, "I spent a lot of time on the bus," he said.

The year's pièce de résistance came at the end, after he had nearly given up on his yearlong quest for a biology internship in France. At the last minute, he scored an unpaid internship in a university biochemistry lab in Tours. His living expenses for the extension were supported by a grant by Davidson's Dean Rusk International Studies Program.

For three weeks, Stewart worked directly with the lab director and top graduate student assistant on cell density analysis, Western blot tests, and protein gel electrophoresis "manipulations" (experiments).

Meanwhile, Stewart had also lined up a well-paid research internship for later in the summer at the University of Chicago.

"So I left the lab in Tours on a Thursday and was in Chicago the following Monday for work," he said. He spent the next 10 weeks working full time in a biochemistry/virology lab studying protein interactions in bacteriophage.

Home Sweet Home

Finally, after 14 months away from home, Stewart was glad to get back to North Carolina and to his senior year at Davidson.

"I feel more American, more Southern, and more of a mountain boy than I did before I left for France!" he said.

Still, missing home is a two way street now: Just as he missed Southern biscuits most in France, now he misses a good French baguette.

He also has an even deeper appreciation now for the support of the college and the college community for his Davidson career.

A David Halbert Howard, Jr. Scholar at Davidson, Stewart also was awarded a 2014-15 John Philip Couch Scholarship of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French (NC-AATF), as well as the Dean Rusk grant covering his French laboratory internship.

Associate Professor of French Caroline Beschea-Fache is Stewart's French major adviser. She directed the Davidson in France program the year he participated, and has had occasion to marvel more than once at how hard he has worked to balance his biology and French majors.

"He's embraced both," she said. "He's not ever been willing to compromise either one of his passions. One of them requires you to be in a lab, and one requires you to be away from a lab. How do you reconcile that? He's done it beautifully."

Stewart's last semester at Davidson will get him under the wire for his double major requirements: genomics, biology of HIV/AIDS, contemporary French cinema, and his major thesis on the linguistic megadiversity of Cameroon.

"I'm ready," he said.