Dr. James Stellar's Story

Stellar’s career began as a basic neuroscientist, trained at the University of Pennsylvania as a PhD and postdoctoral fellow, and then appointed as an assistant and associate (untenured professor) at the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. In 1985 he wrote a book, The Neurobiology of Motivation and Reward, with his father, Eliot Stellar, also a neuroscience professor who had then returned to the faculty after serving as Provost at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1986, J. Stellar moved to Northeastern University in Boston, keeping his continuing research affiliation at McLean Hospital. His laboratory research focused on the dopamine brain systems in laboratory rats, beginning with studies of rewarding electrical stimulation of the brain and then moving into cocaine research with an additional focus on craving from a behavioral, neuroanatomical, and molecular genetic change perspective

Stellar's senior administrative career began in 1998 as Dean of the large College of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern University, during the period of a remarkable rise in university ranking (US News - from 165 to eventually in the 40s) and in college applications (tripling to 15,000 with an attendant 250 point Freshman SAT increase). Given his long-term interest in working with and even hiring his own undergraduates as laboratory research assistants and given his leadership in a cooperative education university, it was only natural that he would take an interest in how learning from experience worked to transform the students and the university itself. This interest was expressed through the World Association of Cooperative Education (WACE), where he co-founded and co-directed their Experiential Education Planning Institute that for over 13 years worked with nearly 100 universities which developed institutional Experiential Education Plans. In 2008, he made a transition to administration in the public university as Provost at Queens College CUNY and then again as Provost at University at Albany SUNY. He also served at UAlbany as Interim President for an academic year before returning to the Provost position and then finally going back to the faculty as a Professor in the Department of Psychology.

The union of Stellar’s administrative career with his earlier work in basic neuroscience was reflected in his 2017 book, Education that Works: The Neuroscience of Building a more Effective Higher Education (IdeaPress). The influence of the diversity mission at the public university is seen in a 2020 multi-authored book that he and recent college graduates have just produced, Diversity at College: Real Stories of Students Conquering Bias and Making Higher Education More Inclusive, from the same publisher. That basic union of behavioral neuroscience and combined learning from classic academics and direct experience remains the focus of this new virtual laboratory of students and colleagues that we are calling the Center for Neuroscience and Experiential Education. It is reflected in Stellar's blog and podcast and in new projects on teaching for engagement and the neuroscience of how professional knowledge and even wisdom develops with experiential learning.

Stellar teaches courses on introductory psychology (with an active engagement approach borrowed from experiential education), psychopharmacology, and seminars on cognitive-limbic integration in making decisions. He works with universities, companies, institutes, consulting firms, and cooperative education societies (e.g. WACE).

© The Center for Neuroscience and Experiential Education