South Mourns Loss of Beloved Biology Professor



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“Brian was more than a wonderful colleague, he was a dear friend,” said Dr. Timothy Sherman, chair of the University of South Alabama Department of Biology. “I will remember fondly the many conversations we shared about music, history, politics and science. I will miss his wry sense of humor and easy going manner. It’s hard for me to believe that he has gone. Truly a loss for our department, the college and the University.”

Dr. Brian Axsmith, who served as a professor of biology at South for more than 20 years, died last month after contracting COVID-19. Dr. Axsmith was 57-years-old and leaves behind his wife, Jennifer, and son, Jeffrey.

Axsmith’s interest in paleobotany, the study of fossil plants, was driven by his belief that many of the questions in vascular plant evolution require paleobotanical answers. His initial research dealt with some of the earliest plants as found in Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous rocks from Antarctica, China, Arizona and Alabama. He also documented the plant fossil record from a region that at the time was poorly researched, such as the Miocene and Pliocene of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Plain. 

Axsmith spent countless hours researching these Late Neogene plant communities and enjoyed every minute. 

“I have plenty of great memories of Brian, but the one that really stands out is hunting for plant fossils with him and discovering a full fossilized seed and how giddy and child-like he was at finding it,” said Blair Scott. “COVID has taken not just a wonderful human being but a brilliant paleobotanist and a professor who inspired students.”

Axsmith’s former doctoral student Dr. Debra Stults has established a scholarship fund for South students to honor Brian’s passion for research and love for South. Click here to give to the Dr. Brian Axsmith Scholarship.

“Brian had an incredible way of pouring enthusiasm and passion into everything he did,” said Jennifer, who earned a degree in anthropology at South. “His energy would dominate the room, and he was always highly commended on his ability to transfer the jargon of his field and make it not only something one could understand but that a person would then become curious about.”

“I loved hearing his stories about teaching. I loved hearing what topics students chose for research papers, and even will miss his rants when he gave a test and everyone missed a question that he thought was very easy. I’ll miss watching him give invited lectures and going with him to ones out of town, sitting in the audience with everyone else and watching him go from a person who was actually introverted and shy by nature to someone commanding the room.”

Axsmith enjoyed working at South, and the physical location of the University was close in proximity to several of his research sites. 

“He loved so many things about the University of South Alabama,” Jennifer said. “One thing that kept him at South was the incredible plant diversity here, not only living, but the fossil record. The region of southern Alabama and into south Mississippi had previously identified fossil sites. But, Brian took a few poorly known sites and ferreted out more information, then hit the ground running, literally, finding new fossil locales, some within a few miles of campus. One of his favorite fossil finds was the only fossil of a Begonia found anywhere in the world, and he found it here in Mobile County.” 

Axsmith collaborated with researchers of multiple fields across the world. 

“His publication record and awards he earned during his career came from his ability to find a piece of a puzzle, an obscure reference in an old publication, an anecdotal story of a spot where someone thought they might have seen leaf fragments in clay, then turn those things into manuscripts that changed knowledge of paleobotany across time in our region, expanding on geological time frames in paleobotany for this region,” Jennifer said.

Axsmith’s most recent focus in research was to continue the documentation of fossil records as found along the eastern and southeastern seaboards of North America.  

“Three papers have been in the works for some time, and he will still be listed as author, even though he is now deceased,” said Dr. Stults, who worked post-doc with Axsmith since 2011 and recently retired from her job at the USA Children's and Women's Hospital. “If you walked into Brian’s lab, all you would see was rocks. He was an intense collector of plant fossils.” 

Many of these collections will still undergo study by Stults, who hopes to curate Axsmith’s collections at museums of natural history. 

“I am continuing to work on our joint research, which I have more time for now, and will continue on this for several years,” Stults said.

Axsmith mentored many biology students who have moved on to serve as leaders in a variety of professions across the region. Taryn Corso, a former undergraduate student who worked in Axsmith’s lab at South, is currently a horticulture supervisor at Universal Orlando Resort. 

“While working with Dr. Axsmith doing research, his passion and dedication to botany and paleobotany was undeniable and infectious,” Corso said. “His classes were dynamic and inspiring. Dr. Axsmith fueled an interest that became a career. He was a fantastic teacher, mentor and friend.”

Dr. Jorden Smith recently graduated from the USA College of Medicine and serves as a resident physician of internal medicine at the University of South Florida. Dr. Smith was a biology major, and Axsmith served as her undergraduate and pre-medical mentor. 

“I loved his unique way of teaching,” Sprague-Smith said. “He literally took us through South's walking and nature trails to find the plants that we were learning about. He believed in me even when others doubted my ability to be accepted to medical school because I had come from a community college. He guided me through required classes and wrote one of my three letters of recommendation for medical school. He was a phenomenal person, who I was happy to be able to keep up with as he joined my husband's band as a bass player after my graduation.”

Former students, colleagues and friends shared the below comments.

“Brian Axsmith was a great professor, and I thoroughly enjoyed the classes I had with him at South. My thoughts and prayers go out to his wife and family.” - Lonnie Foster  

“I don't think I would have made it through graduate school without Brian's peer mentoring and support, and he encouraged me throughout my career. His enthusiasm was infectious and his insights brilliant. My deep condolences to his family.” - Carlie Phipps

“This is heartbreaking news. I took a few of Dr. Axsmith's classes nearly 10 years ago now, but I still often think about how fun he made it to learn about plants. I feel lucky to have known him. I would like his loved ones to know: your friend/your husband/your father made a real impact on my life and I'll never forget him.” - Caitlin Odom

“Dr. Axsmith was a great professor and a kind man. I have so many fond memories of his class two years ago.” - Ashlyn Stahly

“Dr. Axsmith was an amazing professor who was willing to do anything for his students. The amount of different discussions we had talking about food, especially New York pizza and philly cheese steaks, will always be some of my favorite memories.” - Hannah Sims 

“Dr. Axsmith was one of my instructors when I went back for grad school four years ago. His mind and candor were intriguing, and his passion for sharing knowledge with the world was inspiring. I have used the skills gained in his class many times teaching high school students, and I will always honor him as a man and mentor.” - Charlie Crabtree 

“My sincere condolences to everyone with this huge loss. Brian was a very helpful research associate of the University of Alabama Museums.” - Adiël Klompmaker

“Dr. Axsmith was a wonderful person, always honest and cared for his students. He will be missed.” - Hang Nguyen

“Brian was a wonderful colleague and mentor to many, and such a personality. He will be greatly missed.” - Scott Wing

“Dr. Brian Axsmith was not just my professor or advisor, he was also my friend. I honestly didn’t care much about botany, but I took all of the classes he taught because he was such a cool guy and great teacher. I learned so much from him. He was a really good bassist, and I went to watch him play a few times over the years. After my dad died, he was one of the first people to take me out to lunch when I got back home. It’s so sad that he’s gone.” - James Mills

“Brian Axsmith was my botany professor in college. He was an amazing educator that had a refreshing passion for plants and being out in nature. He changed lives for the good.” - Emily Ellis Richards

“Brian was a lovely person and a wonderful paleobotanist. His loss is tragic.” - Paul E. Olsen

“Dr. Brian Axsmith was always up for playing a gig and never once complained about it. Even though he had a Ph.D. in botany, I do feel as though his first love was music. I am so grateful for the times we were able to share the stage together.” - Will Smith