“My research focuses on infectious disease in wildlife. My team and I take a “One Health” perspective, recognizing that human, plant, animal, and ecosystem health are inextricably connected. To better understand infectious disease dynamics, we have focused on a highly lethal disease of amphibians (a group that includes frogs, toads, and salamanders). We have intensely studied many of the factors that can shift deadly disease systems so that hosts and pathogens can co-exist. Our findings — even if coming from a lowly toad — are hopeful, not only for wildlife threatened by disease, but also for humans because their delicate balance with the environment keeps us all healthy and thriving.
Two decades ago, I first watched a deadly pathogen do its damage. I was a graduate student with a youthful (albeit slightly naïve) enthusiasm for the conservation of tropical frogs, working in Panama. At that time, a fungal pathogen (called “chytrid”) appeared and spread through the rainforest streams. I watched helplessly as the vibrant-colored frogs and toads became sick and died. As they disappeared, the streams became silent, and my graduate research project ground to a halt. After all, no frogs means no frog research. So, my adviser, perhaps wisely, advised me to move on.
Fast-forward ten years. Although I advanced in my scientific career, I was still haunted by the loss of Panamanian amphibians. During my postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, I returned to Panama to see for myself what remained of the Panama’s jewel-like frogs. I had the idea that if the pathogen somehow became weaker, or the frogs’ immune systems became stronger, then perhaps such a change would shift the balance, and allow those amazing animals to survive. I galvanized a team of researchers and toad-enthusiasts to begin a search and a new scientific adventure.
The news from field reports was grim; many amphibian species had reached the brink of extinction. Sightings of these now-rare creatures had dwindled until they were only rumors. We spent several months climbing trails with heavy packs and muddy boots. We repeatedly stumbled out of the rainforest disappointed, bug-bitten, and empty handed. Until, after months of searching, we finally found a glimmer of hope. We came across a single, male, highly-endangered Golden Frog (Atelopus varius) perched on a mossy boulder, unconcerned that a cross-continent scramble had been underway for months, just to find him and his brethren. We sat in the rain, watching him hop, and snapping pictures. We collected samples for diagnostic and genetic testing and then, somewhat reluctantly, we said good-bye and wished him well.
We were overjoyed…and here’s why: One small frog in the wild suggested that there were at least some surviving populations out there. And if there is even one small population holding on in spite of the disease, there’s hope – not just for that frog population, or even for the species, but for all wildlife confronting lethal disease. That finding launched a decade of research that has revealed many key insights into how lethal diseases work, how they subside, and how everything is interconnected.
I love what I do. I love science and the adventure of learning something new about the world. Science also offers a great deal of hope, especially as we confront all kinds of serious challenges – just as we do with the current pandemic. It is an inherently creative and hopeful process designed to find the truth. I can’t imagine doing anything else."