Diving under the ice, deep down into the cold Antarctic waters, a team of researchers prepared to survey and explore the biological life in the depths of the ocean.
However, the seemingly harmless observational research mission led to a close call for one of the researchers, providing a fearful experience he remembers vividly.
“I was the last one in (the water), but when they cut my air on, they didn’t cut it on all the way. I didn’t know that until I got to the bottom,” said biology professor George Simmons.
When Simmons dove down into the ice to join the rest of his team, his regulator shut off 100 feet below the surface, sending a shiver down his spine.
“I had on this big suit, so I couldn’t manipulate my oxygen tank,” Simmons said. “As I looked up to the dive hole, I realized that if I screamed, they would pull me up and the wires would all get tangled. We would all be stuck at the bottom of the ice.”
Simmons calmed himself and slowly began pulling himself up to the surface. Struggling for air but slowly nearing the surface, his regulator turned back on, giving him the air necessary to propel him to the surface.
Whether it was diving to the depths of the ocean or exploring the woods near his childhood home, Simmons has always had a fascination with nature.
“Growing up around a lot of living things, I was naturally drawn to biology,” Simmons said.
Simmons grew up on his family’s farming estate in Newton, N.C. Experiencing childhood in a different era, Simmons said he was able to take advantage of the abundant nature around his home.
“When I was growing up, there were not a lot of electronic gadgets,” Simmons said. “When your grandparents told you to go out and play, they meant it. They didn’t expect you back until nighttime.”
It is no surprise, based on his upbringing, that he went on to major in biology at Appalachian State University.
However, his true passion was to become a teacher. His interest in biology simply served as the platform to pursue his dreams of teaching at the high school level. Simmons said his pursuit of a teaching career was greatly influenced by his teachers in school.
“Teachers were always those people that took an interest in you. They are the folks who talk to you in a mature way, challenge your thinking and help you to work to your potential,” Simmons said.
Upon graduation, Simmons took a student teaching position at a local high school. However, the experience did not go the way Simmons had imagined it.
“Everything came out exactly how I wanted, except the student teaching position — that was a disaster,” Simmons said. “I can’t tell you what a poor job I did.”
Prior to the student teaching position, Simmons had worked in several construction jobs operating heavy machinery. Initially, he had considered putting his educational aspirations aside and taking a construction job.
His academic advisor instead suggested he pursue a master’s degree in biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, as it was known at the time, which would grant him the opportunity to become a professor.
Simmons took his advisor’s advice and attended graduate school at Tech. After receiving his master’s degree, he took a teaching position at Virginia Commonwealth University. Three years later, however, he was back at Tech, where he was offered a job in the biology department.
“Coming back three years later it was like a brand new department,” Simmons said. “There was a new department head, who had hired a lot of new staff. It was a completely different environment.”
While Simmons had decided to come back, he did not think he would stay very long, much less for the duration of his career.
“I thought I would be here four or five years and then move on, but every time I drove up on campus I thought, ‘God, this is a pretty place,’” Simmons said.