John Robert Burns

Dr. John Robert Burns

Faculty: Emeriti

Professor Emeritus of Biological Science

John Burns was born in Brooklyn New York , which he describes as "like a small town…it was very peaceful.” He attended Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, and knew very early on that he wanted to pursue an education in science.  He asserts that a career in biology "was my dream. It always has been, since I was a teeny little kid," elaborating, “my mother always joked with me that I knew what I wanted to do when I was a fetus…I was a science nerd as a kid."

After graduating high school, Burns attended Brooklyn College, which he remembers fondly. “Brooklyn College was free...and it was one of the top rated schools at the time…it was idyllic for me.” While attending, he was initially uncertain what he would specialize in. He explains, “I liked everything - plants, animals, you name it.” It wasn't until he continued on to graduate school at the University of Massachussets, Amhest, and worked with John L. Roberts that he settled on physiology. 

Burns remembers the transition to college fondly, though the drastic change in locale necessitated that he get his driver's license and buy a car at the age of 21. Even so, he that he "fell in love with [Amherst] - again, it was idyllic. This guy from Brooklyn in the pioneer valley. It was just wonderful."

After achieving Ph.D. in 1974, Burns entered Peace Corps. He describes it as the “best time of my life…I was 26 years old when I defended my dissertation. That last year, I had a couple of job interviews…[but] I didn’t feel I had grown up yet. I’d never been on an airplane, never been out of the Northeast, and I said, I want something different - I don’t want a job right now. And, at that time, the Smithsonian was actually advising the Peace Corps on people with science degrees." 

With the Peace Corps, Burns travelled to El Salvador, where the Universidad de El Salvador was in dire need of professors due to a several-year-long  military shut down. He took only nine weeks of intensive language classes before he relocated and began teaching physiology in Spanish.  He remained in country for four years: two and half with the Peace Corps, and one and half on an independent contract that resulted from students petitioning for him to stay and teach.  Burns now estimates that somewhere between a quarter and a third of the professors in that department currently were his students 30-40 years ago. He agrees with the slogan that states that the Peace Corps is “the hardest job you’ll ever love," and asserts, "if there’s anything in my life I’d do over again, that’s it.”

Burns loved teaching in El Salvador, but wanted to be able to focus on research, and so decided to apply to postdoctoral positions in the United States. He remembers, “I swore I’d never get back to Brooklyn - so I wound up at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island in Brooklyn.” There, he worked in the fish genetics library while he applied for jobs at Universities.

Burns was thinking about staying on for a second year at the Aquarium when he was called down to DC for his interview at the George Washington University. He remembers, “I came down for the interview and fell in love with the department. They were worried about the urban campus and I said ‘Are you kidding? I’m from Brooklyn - this is perfect!’" He continues, "I loved everybody in the department" and notes, "My department is this way today - everybody helps one another.” 

Burns's main teaching focus is histology , which is the microscopic study of tissues and organs. He continues to teach the histology course in the spring, explaining, “The students are so wonderful - I really wish they were not, so I’d have an excuse to not teach anymore. But they are so wonderful - they’re so much fun to teach. So here I am again, teaching.”

In addition to his teaching, Burns has had a very active research career. He attributes this in part to a partnership he developed with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. In particular, Burns worked with the NHM's curator of fishes, Dr. Stanley H. Weitzman, and asserts  that in that collaboration,“My research took off - skyrocketed.” Weitzman got him in touch with people with people in South America, including Brazil and Peru, and the partnership resulted in multiple funded trips to collect specimens, to both the Peruvian Amazon and Brazil. Those trips allowed for multiple publications on the reproductive structures of various species fish, and also resulted in the founding of a reproductive biology lab in Brazil. 

Burns primary researched the rare phenomenon of internal fertilization in fish. In honor of his research, he has had a rare fish that reproduces in such a manner named after him - the Lepidocharax burnsi. He asserts of the recognition, "I was shocked…honestly shocked. I still feel great about it.” 

As an emeritus, in addition to continuing to teach, Burns has been spending time in the National Archives working on a genealogy project. He also has cultivated a passion for growing vegetables, asserting, “My entire back yard is now a farm.” He remembers, “When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a farmer. Now I’m a farmer…I raise 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes…make my own tomato sauce…it’s fun.”


B.S., Brooklyn College, City University of New York, 1968
M.S., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1972
Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1974

Audio Clip from Interview