In quest for Rhodes, student-athlete Erin Simmons advanced to final round

Erin Simmons

Florida State University graduate student and track-and-field athlete Erin Elizabeth Simmons, 21, of Argyle, Texas, is an aspiring marine biologist and committed volunteer with a unique record of high, fast achievement.

Now, she can add "Rhodes Scholarship Finalist" to her awe-inspiring resume. Just as three other Florida State students have done since 2005, Simmons navigated the grueling, months-long Rhodes application and interview process to advance to the final round of competition for the distinguished prize, awarded annually to 32 U.S. college students from across the nation.

Though ultimately Simmons was not among the Rhodes Scholars for 2010 announced on Nov. 21, Florida State President T.K. Wetherell said her achievements are simply "astonishing" and indicative of the talent and dedication shown by so many FSU students.

"My family and I cannot say enough about the amazing support and encouragement from Florida State that helped make this opportunity a possibility for me," Simmons said. "While we had hoped to see my name listed alongside those of the 2010 Rhodes Scholars, I realize that few students are fortunate enough even to get the chance to compete for such a prize. I feel good about having done so, and excited about the rest of my life at Florida State and beyond."

Called "exceptionally talented" and "intellectually fearless" by her biology professors and academic advisors, Simmons handled the final round of Rhodes interviews with her customary confidence and class, said Craig Filar, director of Florida State’s Office of National Fellowships. Filar noted that it is extraordinary for any student from any university to make it into the rarified ranks of the final competitors for the oldest, most prestigious and best known international fellowship available to American students.

"The entire Florida State community joins me in congratulating Erin Simmons for reaching the finals of the Rhodes competition, and for her outstanding record of academic achievement, service to children, inspiration to young scientists, and commitment to help sustain our planet’s fragile natural resources," Wetherell said. "We’re honored that this promising student, sure to make her mark on the world, chose FSU as her undergraduate and graduate home."

After earning her master’s degree in biological science from Florida State by summer 2010, Simmons hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in zoology. Her career goals include promoting conservation and management of marine resources and habitat and starting an educational outreach program for international youth that addresses sustainability issues.

Simmons seems destined to multitask and succeed with both efficiency and aplomb.

In the 11th and 12th grades, she enrolled full time at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS), a residential program at the University of North Texas for high

school-aged students who are gifted in math and science. She arrived at Florida State in 2006 and, in just two years, earned not only her bachelor’s degree in biological science but also a rigorous, research-rich Certificate in Marine Biology, graduating magna cum laude in 2008. Now, at age 21, after concentrating her studies on marine ecology and evolution, she’s only months away from earning a master’s degree as well.

But her high-speed success at Florida State has been achieved while also competing as a javelin-throwing, triple-jumping, walk-on member of the track and field team; mentoring other young scientists as an instructor in the university’s Saturday at the Sea program for middle- and high-school students; and continuing to volunteer for the Equine Angels Special Therapy Center in Texas, which uses horses to treat and rehabilitate severely disabled children. It’s a commitment that began at age 15 for Simmons, who donated her own horse to the non-profit organization.

Growing up just north of Dallas, Texas, six hours from the coast, Simmons said it was the mystery of the ocean that drew her into the study of marine systems.

"My attraction to science began in the fourth grade and, later in middle school, I got my first glimpse of marine biology tucked away in an obscure chapter of my biology textbook," she said. "My high school years as a TAMS student laid the foundation for my interest in the application of math to biology. Among the reasons I chose to attend Florida State was its Certificate Program in Marine Biology, which enabled me to specialize in marine science while getting a bachelor’s degree

in biology. All this comes together in my master’s thesis, which is integrating math, biology and computer science to develop an optimal management strategy for grouper in the Gulf of Mexico."

Simmons has been an instructor in the Saturday at the Sea program since 2007, helping to introduce local teens to the marine and coastal ecosystems of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The program is part of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory — the primary source of her career inspiration.

"It was at the Coastal and Marine Lab that I really began to connect my love for children and my love for science and envision the possibilities in that connection," Simmons said.

Biology faculty member Felicia Coleman is the Coastal and Marine Lab director. She has worked with Simmons since 2006 as a teacher, advisor and mentor.

"As an undergraduate, Erin was part of the highly competitive Certificate Program in Marine Biology, and though it is usually restricted to upper-level undergraduates, she was exceptional in that she started the program a full two years ahead of the normal trajectory," Coleman said. "But, that didn’t impede her. She used the opportunity to grow as a scholar, and even tackled a particularly complex ecological problem related to fisheries that now serves as the basis for her master’s research. She has a very analytical mind and, given her obvious math skills, has great potential to develop as a young scientist and do extraordinarily well in this field."

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Travis is also a biology faculty member and an advisor to Simmons since her undergraduate days.

"Since she progressed through school more rapidly than most, Erin is younger than nearly all of our other graduate students," Travis said. "As a result, her youth and quiet demeanor may lead some to underestimate her. That would be a mistake. It isn’t often that one sees so much capability and maturity in someone her age. She has the ability to accomplish great things, and with the experience and seasoning that comes with graduate study, she will be ready to do so."

The Florida State University students who have won Rhodes Scholarships since 2005 are alumni Garrett Johnson (2006 Rhodes Scholar), Joe O’Shea (2008), and Myron Rolle (2009). Florida State’s first Rhodes Scholar was Caroline Alexander, in 1976.