Fink, leading authority on the biology and systematics of fishes, retires


By Gail Kuhnlein
Aug 18, 2014 Bookmark and Share

Professor Emeritus Bill Fink’s official retirement photo in the Hill Country of Texas. He is leaning on his British Lotus Elise.  “It’s old – a  2005, but that is the only way a college professor can afford one – used.” Photo credit: Julian Humphries

Professor Emeritus Bill Fink’s official retirement photo in the Hill Country of Texas. He is leaning on his British Lotus Elise. “It’s old – a 2005, but that is the only way a college professor can afford one – used.” Photo credit: Julian Humphries

William L. Fink, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator, Museum of Zoology, retired from active faculty status May 31 , 2014. “The Regents now salute this distinguished teacher and researcher by naming William L. Fink professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator emeritus,” states the Regents Communication.

“I had a wonderful career at U-M, and enjoyed both faculty and the students,” said Fink. “I especially appreciated the Museum of Zoology and its various ‘inmates.’”

“I'm in Shanghai right now, teaching my Biology of Sex course to Chinese engineering undergraduates and it’s been a really great way to transition from faculty to emeritus. We're having lots of adventures and enjoying being in a completely different environment than we've ever seen. As Steve Martin once said about France, over here they've got a different word for everything!”

“Bill has been deeply engaged in the UMMZ's research and teaching mission,” said Professor and EEB Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil. “As curator of fishes, he pioneered the early development of computerized collection databases and trained a new generation of curators. As UMMZ director, he planned the epic move of our wet collections to Varsity Drive. More recently, Bill has reinvented himself as a very successful lecturer – his compelling Biology of Sex course, most recently delivered in the People's Republic of China, has proven to be a big hit.”

Fink received his B.S. degree from the University of Miami in 1967, his M.S. degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969, and his Ph.D. degree from George Washington University in 1976. He joined the University of Michigan faculty as an assistant professor and assistant curator in 1982, and was promoted to associate professor and associate curator in 1987, and professor and curator in 1996. He served as director of the Museum of Zoology from 2005-11.

Fink is a leading authority on the biology and systematics of fishes, with special expertise in Neotropical species, higher classification, and the theory of systematics and biogeography. His research has explored the phylogenetics of piranhas, including the evolution of growth patterns and trophic specializations, and the historical biogeography of the group. Fink has also studied the interrelationships of ostariophysan fishes. His phylogenetic analyses emphasize non-traditional characters including ontogenetic trajectories and morphometrics.

He has been a frequent invited speaker, authored numerous articles in the leading scholarly publications, and coauthored the seminal book entitled "Geometric Morphometrics for Biologists: A Primer" (2004).

A gifted teacher and dedicated mentor, Fink taught comparative anatomy courses with a special emphasis on evolutionary relationships to a generation of students. He received the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts' Excellence in Education Award in 1999. In recent years he has taught a popular undergraduate course on the biology of sex, emphasizing the important decisions people this age are making and helping them to understand the biological and evolutionary context of those decisions.

“Bill has a remarkable ability to get up in front of a class and explain complex subjects clearly and in a way that absolutely engages his audience,” said Professor Emeritus Phil Myers, who said Fink used to be a regular lecturer for him when he taught Bio 108. “It doesn’t matter whether he’s talking to faculty or to first-year undergrads, about the natural history of fish or about the technicalities of cladistic analysis. His listeners get it, and they’re interested.”   

“Bill Fink is one of the most influential systematic ichthyologists of all time and a fantastic mentor for students,” said Prosanta Chakrabarty, one of Fink’s former students, who is now assistant professor and curator of ichthyology, Louisiana State University. “He taught me to think and write clearly about science and to love fishes! I'm currently at a conference with my own students and I see so clearly the difference between the students that have mentors that care about them and push them to do their best versus those that are left to their own devices. Bill is an extremely rigorous scientist who demanded that we always think rationally about what we are doing and work hard at exploring our scientific questions as thoroughly as possible. He was tough, but he was kind – and he occasionally drank beer with us. Bill's students have gone on to be leaders in ichthyology around the country and the world and although we all envy his sports car collection we are glad he was able to instill in us his scientific values and passions before he drives off into the sunset.”

Sallie Foley, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, said “I had the pleasure of co-teaching a course with Bill several years ago. Bill is amazing in the classroom. My PowerPoints are wandering and wordy. Bill's are like haiku. Bill has such command of the material that students stop being afraid of concepts and sit back and learn the science. He also understands the historic relevance of what he presents and makes it come alive. People didn't skip class when Bill was teaching. The cell phones remained in pockets and backpacks. Students came to learn and Bill never disappointed. He's the kind of college prof that students will recall for years to come.”

About his car (see photo), Fink said, “I take it to a road track a couple of times a year to drive legally near the limits of the car.  It’s a better car than I am a driver. The Lotus is my summer car and my 2000 BMW Z3 is my winter car (with snow tires). That way I'm always with a smile on my face. I've had the Z3 for about 11 years and the Lotus about three.   I'd rather drive something old and exciting than new and boring...”

Mountains in Guangxi Province, China, as seen in so many Chinese scroll paintings. Photo credit: Bill Fink.

Mountains in Guangxi Province, China, as seen in so many Chinese scroll paintings. Photo credit: Bill Fink.