Globe-trotting professors bring world to class

This photo of a bald eagle at Yellowstone National Park taken by Ann and Rob Simpson won an award in the Outdoor Writers Association of America contest this year. Courtesy Ann and Rob Simpson
This scene taken in Chile taken by Ann and Rob Simpson won an award in the Outdoor Writers Association of America contest this year. Courtesy Ann and Rob Simpson
Ann and Rob Simpson, of Stephens City, both professors at Lord Fairfax Community College, travel the world studying and photographing wildlife and plants. They also have authored several books. Rich Cooley/Daily

MIDDLETOWN — When Ann and Robert “Rob” Simpson took a group of Lord Fairfax Community College students to the Galapagos Islands for a three-week educational visit, their tour guide showed up in a mini skirt and go-go boots.

“Wait a minute,” Ann Simpson recalled saying after realizing they had hired a tour guide who knew more about the island’s shopping venues than its natural habitat.

Ann Simpson teaches anatomy, physiology and biology and her husband Robert teaches biology and photography at the Middletown community college.  Together, they have combined their interests and have traveled the world photographing and studying exotic plants and animals.  Their work recently earned them awards in the national  Outdoor Writers Competition hosted by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

They placed second and third in the flora category and placed second in the outdoor fun and adventure category of the photography contests.

“To win any award through OWAA is a great honor as this is the premier association for outdoor writers, and competition is intense,” Ann Simpson said.

In addition to the Galapagos Islands, the Simpsons have been to many exotic places, including Madagascar, Costa Rica, Mexico, South Africa and Kenya.

“When I go, I’m particularly interested in the people and the culture and what they’re eating and their diseases and how they use the medicinal plants,” said Ann Simpson.

The couple starting taking students along on their trips in 1995.  After the Galapagos Islands tour guide experience, Ann Simpson said they became more selective with their tour guides and came up with a list of criteria for guides, including knowledge of biology and Latin to provide an educational experience for the students.

Throughout their travels, they’ve seen a variety of wildlife.

“Venezuela is one of the most amazing countries for wildlife,” Ann Simpson said.

To get to their camp, they had to take a plane, a cow truck and then a boat. When they finally arrived, they saw some creatures like pink river dolphins, which Rob Simpson said are “really rare creatures,” in addition to eels, anacondas, piranhas and crocodiles.

One animal they were eager to see was the hoatzin, which is a “punk-rock looking bird,” he said, because of its mohawk.

“It’s a missing link- type bird,” said his wife.

“It’s a bird that when they hatch actually still have fingers and use the fingers to climb trees. It even has a stomach like a cow,” her husband added.

Language issues have cropped up on some of their travels.  Once, as their guide was cutting his way through the forest with his machete, he stopped and pointed at the mud and said “Bubba.” The Simpsons didn’t know what he was trying to say. He spoke little English, and they spoke little Spanish.

“We saw an eye open up, a yellow eye, and then another yellow eye open up,” Ann Simpson said.

A crocodile was in the mud.

They realized that the guide was trying to say, “don’t step on the crocodile, you stupid idiot,” she said, laughing.

During their trip to Ecuador, locals offered them sugar cane liquor, which they had to accept but couldn’t drink entirely before bed.  They took it back to their room, which was next to the kitchen. When they woke up, they found a few dozen dead roaches next to the cup, killed by the strong liquor.

“They were either dead or really out of it,” Rob Simpson joked.

Another time, his wife looked up at the rafters in the bedroom and noticed a black figure.

“Do they have giant tarantulas?” she asked her husband. “A giant tarantula was looking down at me,” she continued.

In Africa, during one of her late-night bathroom breaks, Ann Simpson said she heard rustling coming from a nearby bush. The bathroom was a canvas tent with a hole dug in the ground with a toilet that resembled a folding lawn chair. She heard rustling that got louder and louder, so she called to her husband.

“A giant African porcupine came out, rattling its quills,” she said. Scraps from the kitchen had attracted the animal to the area.

“It was an amazing creature,” her husband added.

The Simpsons said they saw many animals at night because that’s when they liked to hunt.

During a trip to South Africa, they saw a mother lion and three cubs kill a gazelle and eat it right in front of them.

“You could even hear them crunch on the bones,” Rob Simpson said.

Back in the classroom, the Simpsons say they use the photos they have taken and information gathered during these trips to bring the materials they teach to life so that even if students can’t afford to go on these trips, they can still feel like they’ve traveled somewhere exotic.

“I use them almost everyday,” Rob Simpson said.

He recounted the time he was teaching his class about animal behavior in Africa and a student, who was from Africa, confirmed from first-hand experience what his teacher was saying. The student said that the way a bird sings allows you to determine if there is a lion or a python in the area.

Along with traveling to remote areas of the planet, the Simpsons have written many books on nature, most with a concentration on national parks.

A book on Yellowstone National Park is at a printer now, and they are  working on a project for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Simpsons say they hope “we’ll educate people with these books about the amazing nature, and then they’ll want to protect it.”

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or

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