Man holding specimen

Andrew Simons path to fishes

Learn more about Andrew Simons, Curator of Fishes, and his career path that led to the Bell Museum

Published12/23/2021 , by Nehwoen Luogon-Bojkov

Man wearing a mask standing in front of several fish specimens
“Think about your interest, and what you love to do. You may not be able to get them all, or be paid for them all, but it doesn’t matter.” – Andrew Simons, Curator of Fishes, Bell Museum

As a kid, Andrew was always interested in biology, photography and organisms. Growing up, he often kept frogs and salamanders as pets. He fondly remembers The World we Live in, a storybook that he received in the 2nd grade from his grandmother. His interest in biology continued to grow as he advanced through school. After graduation, Andrew entered university and quickly found that the transition to college was harder than he anticipated. He decided to take a break from school and began working.

Eventually, Andrew made his way to Australia for a year-long stay where he spent much of his time scuba diving. While diving, he enjoyed seeing all kinds of fish and habitats and continued his love of photography by taking several underwater photos during his adventures. He even spent 10 days in the Coral Sea in close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef! After various odd jobs in Australia, Andrew decided to move back home to Canada and give college another shot.

As Andrew continued his passion for photography, there would be nights where he would lay awake thinking about how he could organize the many photos taken from his time in Australia.  He wanted to make sure the photos were arranged biologically that would make sense. The challenge of arranging his photos frustrated him. During a hangout with friends that were pursuing their graduate studies, Andrew inquired about a class they were taking called Phylogenetic Systematics. They explained the science and idea of creating testable hypotheses that could be used to structure classifications phylogenies. This conversation made a light bulb go off in Andrew’s head. He realized that this may be the answer to his photography dilemma. He began doing more research to learn about Phylogenetics. At the University of British Columbia, he got a job in a lab with a stickleback biologist Dr. Donald McPhail. Andrew began collecting fish with Dr. McPhail and credits this experience with showing him that his interest in science was more than his passion for animals and biology. It was finding research questions and designing tests to help answer those questions. His position in the lab with Dr. McPhail and knowledge of fish helped him decide on becoming a phylogenetic expert on fish.

With this new direction, Andrew began applying for graduate schools and attended the University of Kansas. He later continued his education in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for his PhD to work in the phylogenetic systematics program with a professor he admired that had recently started working at the same university. This professor was well known for working with North American freshwater fishes and had an active field program that Andrew looked forward to joining. During his time in Alabama, Andrew helped establish a DNA sequencing lab. After completing the research, buying all necessary equipment, troubleshooting, and getting the system working, Andrew completed his PhD in phylogenetics with North American Minnows using DNA sequencing.

Man helping 3 students dissect a fish

Now that Andrew had completed his PhD, he was eager to find postdoctoral work. He later received a teaching and research post-doctoral position, also known as the Organismic Evolutionary Biology Darwin postdoctoral fellowship, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In this position, Andrew taught two classes and worked with William Bemis – a well-known fish morphologist – in his lab. As Andrew continued to progress in his career and seek full-time work, he came across an open position at the Bell Museum. With some encouragement from a good friend, he applied for the role. Andrew has now been with the Bell Museum for over 20 years and has helped build the fish collection into what it is today. During his time as both a professor and curator, Andrew has worked to double the size of the collection, including a significant increase in North American fish specimens. He has also helped to add several fish specimens from around the world. Andrew has trained numerous undergraduate students and graduate students many of whom now have jobs in academia or are pursuing careers with state and federal agencies.

Andrew’s story has helped him relate with his students as well as guide them. He often shares with them that the small things do not matter in the long run and there is always an opportunity to change direction.