Shubhik DebBurman had completed two years of a four-year degree program at an engineering school in Delhi, India, when he came to a realization in the late 1980s.
The native of India was bored. He felt out of place.
A good friend of DebBurman’s family had attended Mount Union College, a liberal arts school in Ohio. The friend told DebBurman, “A liberal arts education allows you to explore.”
Exploration might cure ennui, DebBurman figured.
He researched small colleges in the U.S., targeting liberal arts schools in Ohio. He liked how Newsweek described Springfield, Ohio, home to Wittenberg University. He’d never visited Ohio. He’d never visited the … United States.
He applied to Wittenberg anyway.
“I took a risk,” the 48-year-old DebBurman, now a biology professor and the Chair of the Neuroscience Department at Lake Forest College, recalls before ordering coffee and eggs benedict at Egg Harbor Café in Lake Forest. “It was the perfect place for me. Perfect, perfect. I found myself at Wittenberg. Finding yourself has meaning.
“I still wake up in the morning, and I feel I have a purpose. I owe that feeling to liberal arts.”
DebBurman majored in biology and economics and minored in history in the heart of the United States. He remembers his first academic experience as a freshman at WU, taking notes in an organic chemistry class taught by an award-winning professor. The class started at 8 a.m. The professor was an old-fashioned teacher, an inspirational figure to DebBurman before 8:01 a.m., maybe earlier.
“He got me excited about the class, about learning, right away,” DebBurman, a Lake Bluff resident, says. “The members of the faculty there became my surrogate family; I wouldn’t visit my family in India until six and half years after arriving in the U.S. Professors mentored me. I still stay in touch with them. I tell them news about what’s happening in my life, sometimes before I tell my parents.”
It is a little after 9 a.m., at Egg Harbor Café. We’d met at 8:30 a.m. He had already met with two of his students before then, students researching Parkinson’s Disease. The former mentee in Ohio is thoroughly enjoying life as a mentor in Illinois.
“I am energized, excited, when I work with students,” says DebBurman, who earned his Ph. D at the Northwestern University Institute of Neuroscience. “My office door at Lake Forest College … it is always open. If I can make an impact, give students a lift, I will do that, let them fly and see how far they can go. Teaching in college is something I realized is most important to me, as a vocation. I realized that at Wittenberg. I learned, through liberal arts, you can present an argument and persuade, based on evidence and emotion. Developing a creative imagination can help you solve problems.
“I attended a college with a diverse student body; I now teach at a college with a diverse student body.”
Brain Awareness Week (“Medical Mysteries of the Mind”) at Lake Forest College this year starts on Nov. 7 and ends on Nov. 12. It is packed with all kinds of offerings for the public, ranging from a brain, mind and behavior symposium to a panel discussion following the viewing of the movie Concussion to a pair of “Marvelous Magic” events (Nov. 7 and Nov. 9). Experts will lecture throughout the week. LFC students will conduct other sessions.
“Grandparents and their grandkids can attend a lecture together,” DebBurman says.
He is excited about the week. He is excited about the (John and Paula) Lillard Science Center, set to open on the campus in the spring of 2018 and house interdisciplinary science classrooms and labs. LFC launched a capital campaign last month, with a goal of raising $142 million, $43 million of it going toward the construction of the center. He is excited about his department’s Our Amazing Brain outreach program, during which he and his students present fascinating information to children in North Chicago and Lake Forest/Lake Bluff elementary schools each semester.
“Our mission,” DebBurman says, “is to help young minds discover a passion for science and see its relevance in their world. Raising curiosity about why we have a brain and how it works is such a powerful way to stimulate an early interest in science.”
His LFC students have excited and educated more than 400 third and fourth graders since the inception of the service project, in 2004.
He and his wife, Noyna, a Ph. D economist who works in Chicago, have a 12-year-old daughter. The three visit India every other year and usually stay for a month and a half. It’s a vacation for the spouses, a vacation/heritage appreciation trip for the daughter.
“I value time with my family, and I like to cook … I cook every Saturday night at home,” the professor says. “Downtime for me, if it’s spent doing something work-related, I enjoy that, too.”
Every Fourth of July, near sunrise, the DebBurman family heads to Forest Park Beach in Lake Forest, breakfast (croissant and scones) in tow.
“It’s one of our family traditions,” DebBurman says. “We sit there and eat and watch the sunrise. We look up at the American flag, the big flag on the pole. It’s a meaningful day for us.”