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Simmons establishes scholarship to honor family


As a youngster growing up in Big Stone Gap, Rabern Simmons always knew he would attend The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. 

It was a family tradition, one that his parents, Barry Simmons ’91 and the late Rae Simms ’76, established in the mid 1970s. Simmons’ connection to campus would grow stronger over the years, but it began when the young boy would accompany his parents to various alumni events. 

“There was never a question in my mind where I would go to get my undergraduate degree,” Simmons said. 

Simmons excelled in the classroom and beyond while at UVa-Wise. He participated in the Fellowship in Natural Sciences (FINS) program and developed close working relationships with faculty and staff. He was awarded a FINS research grant in 2004 and worked with Professor Kevin Jones on a study of slime molds. 

Always interested in graduate study, Simmons was encouraged by Jones to pursue his interests. Simmons credits FINS and the stringent science programs at UVa-Wise for preparing him to earn both a master’s degree and doctorate degree in biology. 

Although he kept busy building a career, Simmons, a United States Department of Agriculture AFRI NIFA postdoctoral fellow with the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine, never forgot his time at UVa-Wise and how it shaped him. He vowed to give something back to the college that meant so much to him and his family. 

“Two years ago I gave a little money to the FINS program because it pretty much got me where I am today,” he said. “I decided that whenever I had the opportunity, I would contribute more.” 

Simmons faced a heartbreaking loss when his mother passed away a few years ago. He decided to honor her and her family, Rev. Clyde and Louise Simms, formerly of Coeburn, by making another generous gift to UVa-Wise. 

“Through the unfortunate losses of my mother and also her parents, I was in the awkward position of having money available, so I decided to establish the Simms Family Biology Scholarship,” he said. “When I was at UVa-Wise, I received a lot of financial aid to continue my education, so I can appreciate the struggles of others. If I am able to help a couple of students out each year, I’m proud to do so.” 

Simmons has fond memories of campus, and he often thinks about his years at UVa-Wise. Working with faculty and having access to good labs and equipment at UVa-Wise helped him learn about a variety of experimental methods of research that he still uses today in his work. 

“I always end up looking back at the College, and I keep in touch with a lot of people like Margie Tucker and Kevin Jones,” he said. “The faculty is on par with every other faculty at other large or small universities that I’ve been part of, and they are all high caliber people. I enjoyed my experiences there, and I feel more people in the area should take advantage of UVa-Wise and the experienced faculty.” 

Simmons made a good impression on UVa-Wise faculty as well. 

“Rabern was a student who was really engaged and participated in his own education,” Professor Margie Tucker said. “I remember that he got very excited after taking a course on symbiosis with Kevin Jones and they talked about Wolbachia, a genus of bacteria which infects arthropod species. In any event, I had him in class the next semester and he took what I was teaching and applied it to a protein from the Wolbachia, and when his results did not conform to the results that had been published for that protein he emailed the author of the paper.” 

Tucker said Simmons did not hear back from the author, but said the story indicates how interested and excited Simmons was about what he was learning. 

“He took steps to extend what he was learning about in class into a different area, and he had the gumption to pursue his investigation with an expert in the field when he got unexpected results,” Tucker said. “Rabern exhibited all the habits of mind that we hope to see in students.” 

Simmons has done more to honor the College and its faculty. A few years ago he paid tribute to Professor Kevin Jones by naming a fungus he discovered after his mentor. Fimicolochytrium jonesii is the proper name. 

“I found that particular species inside horse manure from a farm in Maine,” Simmons explained. “Professor Jones was very proud of it at the time.”

Photo Credit

Amanda Clark of the UMaine BioNewMedia Lab