Josh Barber: Like a Fish to Water
As the senior manager of aquatic and reptilian life at Columbia University’s Institute of Comparative Medicine, it’s tough to describe a typical day in Josh Barber’s life. But 20 years ago, when Barber was in ninth grade, living in a homeless shelter with his mother and nine siblings in New Haven, Connecticut, life was even less predictable.
In addition to facing housing insecurity, Barber’s mother was terminally ill with stage four breast cancer and working to ensure that Barber and his siblings had the educational resources they needed. Barber was connected to a tutor through a book bank that would later grow into the program New Haven Reads. Barber’s tutors encouraged him to develop his literacy skills by providing books on Barber’s favorite topic—fish.
“I was obsessed with fish as a kid,” Barber says. “My uncles owned a pet store, and I would spend as much time as I could there. They would give me books about fish every year for birthdays and for Christmas. I was so excited about it.”
Barber’s childhood love for fish never ebbed. After completing his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College, he worked as an aquatic specialist at Charles River Laboratories in the Washington, D.C., area for nearly five years until a friend referred him to Columbia, which had an opening for a coordinator to manage a zebrafish core and quarantine rooms. At that point, the program was small and strictly focused on freshwater fish.
Now, eight and a half years later, Barber oversees nine aquatics facilities across three Columbia campuses that serve more than 60 research staff. He works with all ectothermic (cold-blooded) species involved in research, including killifish, cuttlefish, zebrafish, elephant-nose fish, betta fish, salamanders, xenopus frogs, and anole lizards. Along the way, he also attained his master’s degree in biotechnology from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia and was elected president of the Zebrafish Husbandry Association in January 2022.
Barber’s mother passed away in 2004, and her struggle with breast cancer is an underlying inspiration for the work that Barber does today.
“If I can play a small part using these fish to help enhance the lives of people and maybe to help cure a disease in some indirect way, that’s what I want to do,” Barber says. “Working with fish is beautiful, because it combines medicine and helping people, which I've always wanted to do.”
While Barber’s early life was full of ups and downs, he considers himself a fortunate person.
“I’ve always been a very positive person, even during hardship,” Barber said. “My experiences have given me perspective on life and helped me to be thankful for what I have now.”