Professor John Ubels can trace his love for biology back to the age of seven, when he became fascinated by the habits and biology of fish. This childhood interest in biology would eventually lead him into extensive research on the cornea of the eye, and dry eye disease.
In 1970, Ubels came to Calvin for his undergraduate studies as an aspiring fishery biologist, but unexpectedly spent his career doing clinically related research on the eye. In 1974, Ubels earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Calvin and, subsequently, his PhD in animal physiology at Michigan State University in 1979. After earning his PhD, he was a postdoctoral fellow in physiology and ophthalmology at the Medical College of Wisconsin from 1980-1982 and then taught there for nine years. He then did research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine for four years before making his way back to Calvin in 1995.
During two sabbaticals, Ubels was a visiting scientist at the Van Andel Research Institute from 2003-2004 and a visiting professor at Schepens Eye Research Institute at Harvard Medical School in 2010. Even with 40 years of publishing papers on every part of the eye, Ubels believes that the most important aspect of his work at Calvin has been giving students the opportunity to be involved in significant research.
“The work with students in the lab has been the highlight for me. Over 55 students have done research with me, and I always say that if you’re doing research at a liberal arts college like Calvin, you have to involve students in your research. I consider the work that my students and I have done in the laboratory all these years to be a vital part of my teaching responsibility,” he said.
Ubels led the “Eye Care in Mexico” interim trip in 2014 and 2016 with Dr. Larry Gerbens and a group of pre-health care and nursing students who set up clinics in the poorest neighborhoods of Tijuana for people who have no access to eye care. He hopes to continue leading this trip in future interims. He has also lead the sailing interim trip to Florida six times since 2005, and plans on leading it during the upcoming interim.
During his first year of retirement, Ubels will continue to work in his laboratory. He was recently appointed to be a professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids, where he will teach part-time. He plans to do volunteer work with the Lions Club and the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, in Grand Rapids, and will also travel with his wife, Jan, to New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Diego, where his three children live.
Ubels will miss working with his fellow faculty members in the biology department. “I doubt there is any department at Calvin that is better at getting along than the biology department,” he said. “I will miss those close collegial relationships and friendships.”