Saturday, November 25, 2017

Dawn Phillip - an exceptional collaborator and person

Dr Dawn A.T. Phillip

Andrew Hendry: One of my great regrets as a scientist is that I never got to know Dawn Phillip very well. She was of immense help to my students and postdocs in Trinidad, far above and beyond just common courtesy. Inspired by this regret, I asked my students – who knew her far better than I – to provide their testimonials of appreciation. Before that, however, Anne Magurran – Dawn’s PhD supervisor, friend, and frequently collaborator – provides her own thoughts.

Anne Magurran: Dawn Phillip’s sudden death last month means that we have lost a talented biologist, inspirational teacher, role model and friend.

Dawn during her PhD field work. Photo by Anne Magurran

Dawn did her bachelor and masters’ degrees at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in her native Trinidad and Tobago, before joining me in Scotland for her doctoral research.  She graduated with a PhD from the University of St Andrews in 1998 with a thesis entitled ‘Biodiversity of Freshwater Fishes of Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies’. After her PhD, Dawn secured a faculty position in Life Sciences at UWI. She had been promoted just a short time before her death and was delighted to be rising through the academic ranks.

Dawn was an extremely knowledgeable and insightful ecologist. Like her PhD external examiner Rosemary Lowe-McConnell, Dawn made important contributions to neotropical fish biology. Particularly notable is her Zootaxa (1) paper - the authoritative overview of the status and ecology of freshwater fish in Trinidad and Tobago and essential reading for the many researchers drawn to the rivers of Trinidad’s Northern Range. This paper, as well as the guide to freshwater fishes (2) that resulted from her PhD research, and indeed all of her research output, was under-pinned  by meticulous field work, exceptional commitment to her research and a deep appreciation of the ecology of organisms in their natural environment. I think it is fair to say that I learnt as much from her as she did from me.

Dawn always made me feel welcome in Trinidad and I valued her friendship and the chance to catch up whenever I visited. We continued to collaborate and had been working on a paper and exchanging emails about it the day before her death. She was upbeat and looking forward to future projects and challenges. It is hard to take in the fact that she is no longer with us. I will miss her.

1. Phillip DAT, et al. (2013) Annotated list and key to the stream fishes of Trinidad & Tobago. Zootaxa 3711:1-64.

2. Phillip DAT & Ramnarine IW (2001) An illustrated guide to the freshwater fishes of Trinidad and Tobago (University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago).


My own cherished copy of Dawn's guide book. Photo by Andrew Hendry.

And now some testimonials, remembrances, and reflections from my students and postdocs.

Jonathas Periera: “Sorry to upset your Saturday. I have to inform you that Dawn died in her sleep sometime last night. We will update you as more info becomes available. Sincerely yours, Mark Phillip.” This was how I learned Dawn has passed away in October 28. Although I knew she had some sort of health issues, this message in whatsapp was a shock. It still is. I had just been with her in Trinidad, where I stayed five months doing field work. Dawn saved my ass many times and greatly contributed to the (at least partial) success of my field trip. Always smiling (even 4am in the morning!!), I feel Dawn is perhaps the best representation of a true “Trini” to: always in good vibes, no matter what. Dying over her sleep was perhaps the best way death could find to take her life. My most sincere condolences to her family, friends, and the University of the West Indies.

Felipe Perez-Jvostov: As everybody else starting a PhD, I spent the first several months trying to understand my study system: who has done what, where have they done it, what did they find. Confusion was commonplace – at least until my first field season in Trinidad when start getting first hand experience. During that trip I met Dawn Phillip. Dawn came to our research station to meet the research crew. She had worked with guppies, Rivulus, and many other fishes that have been so intensively studied in Trinidad, and she was always interested in what people were up to, and how she could help. Her personality made it so easy to get along with her – an air of familiarity that made you feel comfortable. In my many subsequent trips, I would often chat with Dawn about my projects (or more often the problems with them). She would always have a warm advice, and calm me down with a smile. I was very sad to know of her passing. The research community has lost a wonderful colleague, and those who knew her personally have lost a dear friend that was always available to help – you just needed to ask. At least for me, I will always remember that first time I met Dawn, and how she would not say no to a « beastly cold Carib ». 

Gregor Rolshausen: Dawn was an indispensable and very helpful colleague of mine in Trinidad. She was an expert on tropical fish communities, and introduced me to some of the most fascinating ecosystems I have seen. A dedicated scientist and teacher at Western Indies University, Dawn also had a passion for organizing field excursions and connecting her students to international research projects. But above all, I remember Dawn as a truly warm-hearted friend with a great laugh. It is very sad to say goodbye this way.

Kiyoko Gotanda: Dawn was a wonderful scientist and generous with her knowledge. Her research has been an inspiration for my own work in Trinidad. She is a co-author of a guide to freshwater fishes of Trinidad of which I had a black and white copy. Dawn shared her colour plates with me, and the guide was invaluable in helping me with identify the different species of fish I was sampling. My first field season in Trinidad, I had wanted to explore some of the oily and non-oily sites in the southern part of Trinidad. I had no experience working in that part of Trinidad. Dawn provided maps, information, and one of her graduate students to assist me in my sampling of these sites. Without her generosity and willingness to collaborate, I would likely have never even found the sites! I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work and interact with Dawn, and she will be greatly missed.

Lea Blondel: I met Dawn in 2016 during my third visit to Trinidad. We had already exchanged emails before that, because I needed a local supervisor and because she helped a few other students from my lab before. I immediately connected with her thanks to her kind, generous and outgoing personality. Even if we didn’t interact much when I was in Montreal, she always showed great interest to my project when we met in Trinidad. The memory I will keep with me is the day we spent together at her house this past March, talking about exciting ideas and eating roti. The day was really warm so we got some rest under the porch of her house, before driving along the east coast of Trinidad where she shared some of her favorite places with me. It was a really special day and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to know the great person and the great researcher she was.

Dawn during field work just last year. Photo by Lea Blondel.


I hope others who have benefited from Dawn’s kindness and help will add comments to this post.


  1. I met Dawn back in 2006 when I was in T&T to work with my then girlfriend who was doing her Postdoc on coral reefs. We had plans to use stable isotopes to examine how ecosystem function differed around the coasts of T&T.

    As a fish ecologist, I was also very keen to get some work under my belt on guppies whilst in Trinidad. Very soon Dawn and I got to chatting and decided that we would see how oil pollution affected guppy diet, and 2 weeks later we had all the data collected thanks to Dawn, Ryan M and the rest of the UWI crew.

    The results were amazing and to my shame, they are yet to be published. I last spoke to Dawn (via email) in June when she emailed me to discuss sequencing of microbial community DNA we collected at the time.

    I will do all I can to get the guppy SIA paper published in memory of a great friend, biologist and bloody nice person.

    Dawn - you will be missed.

  2. Dawn was one of my very special friends who I never got to see often enough. I would always consider myself lucky when I found her in her office during one of my visits to the Department at UWI, and especially, if time permitted, enjoying lunch together, as we did last year.
    Some 27 years ago, around 1990, I spent a sabbatical at UWI. That’s when I first met Dawn and was asked to read her thesis. She had written a fascinating MSc thesis on the biology of Trinidad’s little- known Mountain Mullet, detailing its feeding habits and reproductive biology, all important natural history of this species. It was published shortly thereafter in 1993 (Environmental Biology of Fishes). We laughed about a statement somewhere in the thesis, maybe the introduction, to the effect that she and her assistants had cooked a mullet over a riverside campfire! Those must have been unforgettable times on the shores of the Tompire River. Wish I had been there.
    I can also well-remember our time together later, in 1996, at the EEEF meetings at the University of New Mexico. I was thrilled to hear her presentation. Those were memorable meetings for Dawn, and the beginning of her many and continuing contributions to our knowledge of the biology of the fishes of Trinidad.
    It’s tough to lose a friend, especially when death comes so prematurely. We all know that with Dawn we have lost a friend, a colleague, a fellow scientist, a compassionate teacher, and a concerned conservationist, especially for the much-in-need nature of Trinidad. We will all miss Dawn.
    Doug Fraser
    Siena college
    NY USA


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