Heartfelt thanks to Fred Benfield, professor emeritus of Biological Sciences

April 20, 2020

Virginia Tech hosts a number of distinguished and treasured faculty, and one of the most colorful is Fred Benfield. He is an aquatic ecologist, and throughout his career, has contributed to that field in a number of ways. Benfield’s research focused on stream biodiversity, freshwater macroinvertebrates, leaf litter decomposition, and land-use effects on stream communities and ecosystems, and his research on the role of freshwater macroinvertebrates in leaf litter decomposition is foundational in the world of stream ecology.

GCC affiliate Lisa Belden recalls some of her favorite experiences with Fred in the summer of 2008, when they co-advised an undergraduate on a summer research project.  They spent the summer re-surveying 37 streams in the region that had populations of stream snails in them, according to a survey done in the 1980s by one of Fred’s previous undergraduate advisees. Lisa was interested in finding out what parasites were using those snails as hosts, and a large-scale field survey seemed like the best way to get started.  She noted, “I was pre-tenure, stressed, and struggling to establish myself and get my first grant funded, and Fred had been studying streams and their aquatic insects in this region for a long time.  Heading out to the field with Fred was, I imagine, not dissimilar from going for a walk in the woods with any master naturalist who knows all the plants and animals and their life histories.”  Fred was well-known for having  a detailed map in his head of every stream in at least a 5-county area, of the land use and flooding history at every site, and the creatures that live there.  Looking for the East Fork of Crooked Creek?  Fred can probably drive you there with his eyes closed, and regale you with stories along the way of past students and adventures in stream ecology.

Much of Fred’s work was performed in collaboration with Jack Webster, also Biological Sciences faculty at VT, through the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research site, at which he and Webster were both long-term PIs. As an instructor, Fred inspired generations of students in Freshwater Biology, Ecology, and Field and Laboratory Ecology for many years. He was also mentor to a large number of graduate students, many of whom have transitioned into successful careers of their own, including, but not limited to Eric Sokol, Chris Burcher, Kevin Simon, Ryan Sponseller, and Bob Sinsabaugh. Benfield is also a well-known and respected figure in the international Society for Freshwater Science (formerly the North American Benthological Society) where he has been editor and chief of the journal, received the Distinguished Service Award (2012), and served as society president.

One of Benfield’s most enduring legacies is as co-founder, along with Jack Webster, of the Virginia Tech Stream Team, an internationally recognized influencer in aquatic ecology. What began as simple research meetings between their two labs has evolved into a research group that now contains the labs of 6 Principal Investigators at Virginia Tech. While Benfield and Webster are both retired, they still often attend weekly Stream Team meetings where they often provide invaluable historical perspective on science, Virginia Tech, and life in general.

However, to limit Fred Benfield’s contributions to strictly science and instruction would be to do him a disservice. He is a personality, a character, and a great mentor to all. And not just students. GCC affiliate Bryan Brown noted that Benfield was his faculty mentor when he was junior faculty and Benfield has served as mentor for numerous other faculty in both formal and informal capacities.

He is also a long-time member of the VT NBA (Noontime Basketball Association) where he is infamous for his running one-footed jump shot, pointy elbows, and a gruff exterior behind which hides one of the kindest and most generous souls to grace the courts at War Memorial. He is also a popular figure in the Society for Freshwater Science, and at annual meetings, most evenings he can be found participating in the SFS Jam, along with assorted banjos, bagpipes, vocals, and kazoos.

Working with Fred reminds everyone that you need to get outside if you hope to glean any ecological understanding of the world; knowing a system requires us to be out in it, to learn natural history, and doing that requires time.  Sometimes it is easy to think that time spent in the field is a luxury, minutes stolen from writing grant proposals, but actually, it is essential to all we do as ecologists.  So in honor of Fred’s retirement, please take a moment to go for a walk, to learn the trees in your neighborhood, to flip over a rock and see what is there.  Spend your time doing something that matters to you, and thank those that helped you get where you are today.  Thank you, Fred!

Written by Lisa Belden, Bryan Brown, & Jeb Barrett,
edited by Jessica Nicholson