Nearly thirty years ago, fishery research biologist Dr. Neal Foster asked his friend Professor Gerald R. (Jerry) Smith what kind of financial support would make the biggest impact on the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ). Foster recalls that Smith, who was director of the UMMZ from 1998 to 2002, told him, “We desperately need support for graduate student research.”

Foster, who participated in the Environmental Teach-In on the first Earth Day in 1970, has witnessed firsthand the evolution of ichthyology into an increasingly interdisciplinary field with significant ecological implications. As a lifelong researcher, he knows that the work of young scholars is crucial to the continued advancement of fish research. Jerry Smith’s response stuck with him and, in 2018, he designated a $1 million bequest in his will to establish the Dr. Neal R. and Meredith S. Foster Fellowship in Ichthyology. The fellowship will support innovative and scientifically significant graduate student research in the study of fishes at the UMMZ. Specimens collected during fellows’ field research will be added to the museum’s permanent collection, which currently holds approximately 3.5 million catalogued specimens available for study.

The Foster Fellowship in Ichthyology is the most generous gift on record to the UMMZ. It will enhance the Division of Fishes’ exceptional strength as one of the top research resources and teaching centers dedicated to the study of fish evolution, ecology, and behavior.

Recognizing UMMZ’s Value as a Center for Fish Research

Dr. Neal Foster poses at the Cape Fear River in the early 1970s with a Viceroy butterfly, a species that mimics the color pattern of Monarch butterfly so that birds won't eat it. The butterfly is drinking sweat from the fabric of Foster's cap to get certain salts. Foster was sampling freshwater fishes during an environmental study of the river. Says Foster, "As a kid I used to collect butterflies and other insects; and I might even have become an entomologist had I not gotten very interested in fishes instead (when I was in high school)."

Neal Foster earned his Ph.D. in ichthyology from Cornell University in 1967. He spent a number of years as a curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before moving to Ann Arbor in 1977 for a research position at the Great Lakes Fishery Laboratory (now the USGS-BRD, Great Lakes Science Center).

There were relatively few ichthyologyists in the 1950s and 60s, and collegial ties between graduate students and professors at the University of Michigan and Cornell University were numerous and close. Foster became acquainted with many U-M faculty while he was completing his graduate studies, including pioneering ichthyologist and former UMMZ curator Professor Robert R. (Bob) Miller.

After he moved to Ann Arbor, Foster renewed his relationships with UMMZ faculty and they deepened into treasured friendships based on mutual respect for one another’s scholarship and a passion for their discipline. His good friend and colleague Dr. James Diana, professor of fisheries and aquaculture and the current director of Michigan Sea Grant, co-sponsored his appointment as adjunct assistant professor in fisheries and aquatic sciences in the former School of Natural Resources and the Environment in 1988. As adjunct faculty, Foster was able to remain vitally active in his fields of interest through access to the University of Michigan Library’s digital periodical literature in ichthyology. His research interests include the intersection between pheromonal aspects of fish reproductive behavior, biodiversity and ecology.

“I still have a substantial sense of gratitude to the University of Michigan for having granted me adjunct faculty privileges for so many years,” says Foster. “I’ve always greatly admired and respected the quality of the university’s research and faculty—and I’m immensely pleased that my legacy will be a contribution to U-M’s continued excellence in the field of ichthyology.”

New Curator Leads Renaissance in Division of Fishes

Foster is especially excited about the recent appointment of Dr. Hernán López-Fernández to Associate Professor and Associate Curator of Fishes at the UMMZ. He describes López-Fernández’s interdisciplinary approach to exploring the diversity and evolutionary history of the planet’s largest diversity of freshwater fishes in the Neotropical region of South and Central America as modern ichthyology of a sort that would have been unthinkable when he was beginning his own career 50 years ago. The work López-Fernández is doing -- targeted field exploration, discovery, collection-building, and collection-based evolutionary research -- is what Foster had in mind when he was crafting his bequest.

“Dr. López-Fernández is one of a new breed of young ichthyologists, using DNA to understand the evolution of the fish fauna in Latin America. These are some of the least known freshwater fishes in the world, and they’re making many of the same habitat-destroying mistakes there that we did in the United States years ago. His work is really timely,” notes Foster. “The University of Michigan is one of the leading centers in the world for understanding the evolution of plants and animals, and Hernán’s leadership will continue to advance that position at the UMMZ.”

Foster’s gift also coincides with a number of other considerable developments for the UMMZ. The fishes collection recently completed its move to state-of-the-art facilities at the Research Museums Center (RMC). There, fish biologists are taking advantage of a new micro-CT scanner to look at century-old specimens in completely new ways, and new liquid nitrogen tissue archival facilities are helping to bring the era of genomics into U-M’s natural history collections. At the same time, the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, of which the UMMZ is a part, has moved into the brand new Biological Sciences Building (BSB) on central campus. The building houses a cutting-edge genomics lab for DNA analysis, extensions of the dry and wet collections, and a morphology lab with latest generation microscopy equipment, enabling students and researchers to seamlessly work on biodiversity research on campus, as well as at the RMC. The labs at the BSB also feature large picture windows that open to the university’s new Museum of Natural History where visitors will be able to observe scientists at work. Together, the facilities in both new spaces have been developed in a way that is mindful of how faculty, students, and postdocs use the collections. The natural history collections also now have a full complement of curators and collection managers, which include not only fishes, but also plants, fungi, insects, mollusks, birds, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians.

“We are thankful for Dr. Neal Foster’s transformative support of our ichthyological program,” said Diarmaid Ó Foighil, department chair of ecology and evolutionary biology. “The Division of Fishes, and the UMMZ program more generally, is currently undergoing a renaissance and great things are in store over the coming years.”

López-Fernández agrees that it’s an exciting time for both organismal biology and museum collections, with technologically advanced tools and a renewed drive for biodiversity research rapidly expanding how researchers can look at specimens that have been in collections for decades, or even centuries, in completely new ways.

“We are using DNA to build hypotheses of how different species are related to each other. It gives you a roadmap of how evolution happened. We can combine that with the fossil record and the morphology of the specimens we have in the collections to develop a time tree for how old the fishes are in comparison to each other and the differences in their evolutionary processes. This allows us to reconstruct the history of how biodiversity originated,” he says. “It’s a phenomenal time to do this work in museums, because we’ve been amassing these amazing collections that we can now go back to and use in so many different ways.”

“Neal Foster’s bequest will give graduate students the ability to both learn how to use these new cutting-edge tools and incorporate all of these new approaches, as well as taking advantage of the vast scope of U-M’s collections, to do research in a really innovative way,” says López-Fernández. “They’ll also have the opportunity to build on 200 years of university history by going out into the field and contributing to the growth of the collections, which is fundamental. The collections aren’t static. We are adding to the collections--and studying them--in ways that no one would have imagined even 20 years ago, much less when many of the collections were created over the last two centuries.”

A Deeply Personal Connection

Meredith Spencer Foster, BA 1965, MPA '67

Foster warmly regards the University of Michigan as his adopted alma mater. He credits his late wife Meredith Spencer Foster’s (BA 1965, MPA ‘67) love for the University of Michigan and her considerable financial acumen for the inspiration and ability to make such a generous gift. He and Meredith, an enthusiastic and brilliant U-M alumna, both enjoyed and were nurtured by the rich intellectual and cultural life that surrounds the university. Foster’s interest extends to plants, as well, and he shared a passion for orchids with Meredith. Together they co-founded the Ann Arbor Orchid Society, which stages an annual Orchid Festival at U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens each spring.