17 August, 2016
Gadsden, Ala. – Dr. Hugh Hammer of Gadsden State Community College has received the Outstanding Steward Award from the Zebrafish Husbandry Association, an international non-profit organization devoted to promoting and developing zebrafish husbandry standards through education, collaboration and publication. Hammer received the award during the World Aquaculture Society conference in Las Vegas.
“The award doesn’t really belong to me,” he said. “It really belongs to the whole team.”
Hammer is Gadsden State’s aquaculture instructor who works with one full-time and two part-time employees. He also has a lab full of volunteers. He attributes the award to their hard work.
“I’m incredibly fortunate,” he said. “My students volunteer hundreds of hours. They make our program unique and special. They work really hard and they’re willing to put in the time.”
Hammer has been responsible for Gadsden State’s aquaculture program since 2001. He was studying for his master’s degree in biology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was given the daunting challenge of building from a two-student program.
“In the past 15 years, we have built something that’s more than an academic program,” he said. “I have up to 20 students in each of my four aquaculture courses. We do field trips together. We attend professional meetings together. We volunteer together. We work together. We’re more than just classes and exams. Our program is bigger than that. We’re like family.”
Hammer, who earned his Ph.D from UAB, was approached in 2010 by zebrafish professionals to spearhead an educational program that trains people to take care of zebrafish, which are now being widely used in medical research due to their affordability, high production rate and rapid growth.
“The employees caring for the fish lacked quality training,” he said. “About 500 U.S. labs use zebrafish but many don’t understand how to properly take care of the fish. We needed to develop a program that trained research scientists and physicians as well as their staff in order to eliminate this dilemma.”
In the beginning, UAB provided $20,000 in funding to partner with Hammer and Gadsden State on the
zebrafish program. The program, which will be housed exclusively at UAB beginning this fall, offers hands-on workshops for professionals from prestigious higher-learning institutions, such as Harvard University, Princeton University and Northwestern University as well as medical research facilities like the Mayo Clinic and Boston Children’s Hospital.
“The project offers training to a community that needed and wanted the training,” he said. “The impact of the workshops here in the U.S. has now stimulated interest in hosting workshops in Europe and Southeast Asia. There’s a lot of positive noise in the world about zebrafish husbandry.”
Hammer is proud of Gadsden State’s unique aquaculture program. Nationally, it has the highest job placement rate than any other community college aquaculture program and is the second-largest undergraduate aquaculture program behind Auburn University.
“You can’t talk to somebody in this industry that doesn’t know about Gadsden State,” he said. “We have had students further their education at Vanderbilt, Tulane, UAB, Michigan and Georgia Tech. We have students who are now working for Duke University, the National Institute of Health and the Mayo Clinic. We have a wonderful reputation.”
In addition to working at Gadsden State, Hammer holds adjunct positions at Auburn University and UAB. The new online course he teaches on zebrafish husbandry for UAB was full within three days and includes students from nine different countries. He also teaches the marine aquaculture course during the summer at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a position he has held for a decade.
“Teaching the course on Dauphin Island is a great recruiting source for Gadsden State’s aquaculture program,” he said. “They can come to Gadsden State and receive more experience and career guidance. A lot of times, they don’t know what jobs are available to them. We help them with their career path.”
Hammer said he has enjoyed his own career path to Gadsden State.
“If it all ended today, I have no regrets,” he said. “For our program to be known and appreciated on an international level is absolutely amazing. I’m proud of what we have to offer to the students at Gadsden State.”