A keepsake of the distinguished Dr. Robin M. Overstreet
Tue 06/28/2022 – 13:19 | By: Michael J. Andres and Reginald Blaylock
Robin (Bob) Miles Overstreet died May 21, 2022. He was born to Laura and Robin Overstreet in Eugene, Oregon on June 1, 1939. Bob spent his youth hunting, fishing, playing sports, and building race cars. After high school, he followed a path that relatively few college students follow today, enlisting in the United States Navy. His time in the navy ended up being formative as he was assistant to an oceanographer aboard an Antarctic icebreaker. During this time, he was tasked with helping collect water samples and biological specimens using a variety of collection techniques. Many of the specimens he helped collect are still certified at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Several years later, Richard Heard (SOSE Professor Emeritus and Bob’s first doctoral student) described some of the specimens Bob collected during of his navigation in Antarctica.
After leaving the Navy, he returned to Eugene to attend the University of Oregon where he earned his bachelor’s degree and eventually met his late wife Kim. Kim and Bob would go on to have two sons, Eric and Brian, and two “grandchildren”, Jackson and Maddison. Again his path was not direct, focusing first on business before returning to spending time on ships collecting specimens on the Oregon Coast. There, he deepened his interest in marine biology, fishing and parasites. He chose to attend the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMS; then the Institute of Marine Science) at the University of Miami to pursue his master’s degree, in part because of the opportunity to learn from professors oriented towards biology and in part due to the rich diversity of organisms that would be at hand. While there he met many established and visiting ichthyologists who provided him with opportunity and guidance to pursue a study of fish parasites. His thesis helped lay the foundations for his work as a parasitologist specializing in the ecology and taxonomy of parasites.
Bob stayed at RSMS for his PhD, but took a very indirect route that seemed to guide his approach to mentoring later students. He largely directed his own doctorate, traveling to other universities to acquire the expertise of various parasitologists (Paul Beaver at Tulane, Raymond Cable at Purdue, and Harold Manter and Mary Lou Pritchard in Nebraska) which would ultimately culminate in his monograph. dissertation in which he examined over 110 species of fish for parasites, erecting new genera and describing 13 species. His dissertation established him as one of the most prolific parasite taxonomists of his generation and one of the world’s experts on digeneans (parasitic flatworms). His monograph still serves as a foundational text for those studying fish parasitology. His next stop was a return to Paul Beaver’s lab, but this time as a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University Medical School. At Tulane, his fascination with nematodes began to grow, and he developed his idea that parasitologists should serve both their science and their communities. For the rest of his career, he always took the time to respond to and help anglers, hunters, state officials, industry professionals, and ordinary citizens concerned about animal health issues ( and sometimes human). Many of his students and technicians wondered why they were asked to look at seemingly random specimens from the ends of the earth (and the rear ends of an almost unfathomable variety of animals).
In 1969 Bob was hired as head of the parasitology section at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory where he quickly developed a highly influential course in marine parasitology. Many young parasitologists, including his good friend and future colleague at Southeastern Louisiana University, the late Bill Font, were influenced by this course. While Bob has held academic positions at numerous universities in the United States and abroad, he has remained with GCRL throughout his career and has seen GCRL grow from a state marine laboratory to part of the University of Southern Mississippi. During his career at USM, he participated in the development of toxicology and aquaculture programs. As a result of all his hard work, he became the first recipient of USM’s Innovation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Although his passion had always been marine parasites and systematics, he was a complete biologist. He boasted of being a “hard” problem solver that eventually led him to acquire over $50 million in external funding from various funding agencies, both nationally and internationally. The advice he often gave to his development students when applying for funding or pursuing research questions was to “follow the cheese” and work on “good” problems. This exact mantra has led him to work with the catfish farming industry to help combat the major trematode infections that occur in their ponds. During his prolific career, he served as editor or associate editor of 12 journals, produced 22 graduate students (14 of whom were PhDs), produced nearly 400 publications, and received numerous international and nationals. Additionally, more than 30 species bear his name as a testament to his contributions to helminth taxonomy. Bob has always had a special reverence for academic societies and their journals, especially the American Fisheries Society and the American Society of Parasitologists, which he has held in many capacities, including as President in 2003. He has also received the society’s Eminent Parasitologist Lectureship Award in 2014. .
Bob Overstreet (center) with his second course in marine parasitology in 1980; his friend and colleague William “Bill” Font is second from the right.
Bob and Kim often hosted visiting scientists from around the world in their home and in his laboratory. Many of his former students, USM collaborators and our colleagues have fond memories of visiting GCRL and long days/nights looking through a variety of animals in Oceanography Room 137. Kim was often a lab mother for her students and was probably the only person who could correct her grammar. Bob retired from USM in 2014 and was awarded Professor Emeritus status. Although faculty meetings are far less entertaining without him, he maintained an active laboratory for several years after his retirement. Throughout his life he maintained a passion for hunting birds (and collecting their parasites of course), spiders and classic cars. He will certainly miss his colleagues, friends and former students, as well as his anecdotes. There is some sadness in knowing that future parasitology students will not have the opportunity to use Oceanography 137 as a base for conducting fieldwork along the Gulf Coast. Likewise, there is sadness in knowing that we will never again feel the frustration of facing his scathing comments on a draft manuscript and, moreover, being able to settle everything on a Mello Yello in his office. He sometimes remarked that if you want to live “forever”, be a taxonomist (the authority, or the person who described the species, is maintained with the name of this organism), and he will certainly live on in our memories. and through his contributions to the field of aquatic parasitology.