As an undergraduate, Dr. Bryan Neff received some good advice. “At the end of my first year at the University of Toronto, I was trying to decide between the medical school direction and computer science. My friend said ‘well, what was your favourite class this year?’ – I didn’t even need to think, of course it was Biology!” First year Biology at UofT focused on Evolutionary biology and Ecology and Dr Neff realised that it was evolution that really interested him.
“I grew up in Guildwood on the Scarborough Bluffs, and spent a lot of time out taking photographs, especially of trees. In fact, I was really interested in plants, until the cold killed all my science fair plants on the way to school and I had to explain to the judges that the brown shrivelled things in pots were actually demonstrating something!” Bryan was also very keen on fishing (“three friends and I shared ownership of a boat for fishing”, he recalls), but it was not fishing that led him directly into fish biology. “The same friend had worked with Dr. Mart Gross when she was a high school student, and suggested I apply for a summer undergrad position he had going. The applications were due that day, and I think I slipped my application under his door at about 9pm” he laughs.
Bryan got the position, and never looked back. “I didn’t leave Mart’s lab until I had done with my PhD!” he explains. “Mart’s lab, the research, U of T, they were all great places to be.” His first summer, Bryan was in the field helping a Master’s student. “Mart didn’t spend that much time in the field, so there was some level of independence from the get go. The MSc student gave me a lot of room to think and solve problems for myself, and I learned an awful lot about the system and about doing science. I came back for other summers, and was able to start to develop my own questions, which led to my honours thesis project.”
At the end of his honours thesis project, it was an easy decision to stay for his PhD. “It was an exciting time – molecular tools were just becoming available so we could understand aspects of behaviour that had previously only been a source of speculation. Because I had already started to understand the system, staying where I was really allowed me to hit the ground running.” Although the early days of molecular biology were not without their difficulties “a lot of things didn’t work that well, so it was certainly challenging”, Bryan was very successful in understanding the behaviour of the sunfish he was working on. That led to a postdoc at Cornell (“Intellectually stimulating... and a beautiful campus”) and then landed him a job at Western (“only the second job I’d applied for”) in 2001.
The move to Western was a good one. “No-one has ever put a road block in place, they’ve always wanted to help my research along” says Bryan, citing as an example the Associate Dean that allowed him to use his lab facilities while Bryan was waiting for his laboratory to be renovated. “His motivation was to get my research up and running as fast as possible” says Bryan. “I think that is a good indication of the mentality here – and it is a very good mentality!”
Bryan’s research has now moved to other species, including several projects on the evolutionary biology underlying the management of salmon fisheries, and he has received a number of awards, including this year’s Florence Bucke Science prize form the Faculty of Science. Dr Neff is always on the lookout for graduate students interested in evolution, behaviour (and fish!), read more about his research here .
When I was growing up, I wanted ... to be a train driver. Well at least in grade 2 that is what I wanted to be. My teacher called my mom to express her concern that my parents should be encouraging me to think about other career paths … my mom laughed. What grade 2 kid isn’t interested in trains.
My favourite organisms are ... fish. Of course.
My first publication was about ... the development of microsatellite genetic markers and how they could be used to detect cuckoldry by specialized sneaker males within the broods of bluegill.
My favourite piece of research was ... my first paper. It still takes me back to the excitement of discovery, the wonders of science, and that great feeling that you are working on something that no one else has ever done before.
Biology at Western is ... a vibrant department with individuals making great contributions to research, teaching, and service.