A University of Maine scientist’s years-long study of an obscure fungus has earned her a national award that recognizes scientists for important outcomes of work that initially might have seemed fruitless.
Joyce Longcore, a UMaine mycologist and associate research professor, spent much of her career studying a then-little-known, little-cared-about variety of fungus called chytrids.
Then, in 1997, veterinary pathologists at the National Zoo in the Washington D.C. reached out to Longcore looking for help. Their blue poison dart frogs were dying in droves, and the zoo was stumped as to why. They sent her a sample of a fungus that seemed to be afflicting the animals.
“You never know when something that is found will become important,” Longcore said in a recent university news release. “I was content to study a group nobody had much interest in.”
Soon enough, there would be plenty of interest. Longcore worked with the cultures from the deceased frogs, and ultimately pinpointed chytrids as the culprit. After unlocking the answer to the zoo’s problem, environmentalists around the globe, perplexed by decades of unexplained amphibian die-offs, suddenly had an answer.
Longcore’s discovery unlocked new knowledge about how the fungus traveled the globe with the help of human movement, hurting amphibian populations across vast stretches of Central America, Australia, the Netherlands and Asia. Some strains can be found in parts of the U.S., including Maine. This knowledge could ultimately save some at-risk species from extinction.
The Golden Goose Award recognizes scientists whose federally funded research might have seemed silly or unusual on the surface, but ended up having a significant impact. The award was created in 2012 in the anti-spirit of the Golden Fleece Awards, which were doled out from 1975-1988 by Sen. William Proxmire to federally funded projects that he deemed wasteful. Often, the targets were obscure-sounding research projects.
Longcore is expected to receive the award Wednesday at the Library of Congress, in front of a group of members of Congress and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“I love a group of organisms, and they’re called chytrids, much in the same way birdwatchers love birds,” Longcore said. “They’re beautiful and not a lot of people know what they are.”
Before Longcore, no scientist had discovered a chytrid that could be a pathogen to vertebrates.
Five other U.S. scientists received a Golden Goose this year. Elaine Lamirande, Don Nichols and Allan Pessier, who collaborated with Longcore on her research, earned their own Golden Gooses recognizing their contributions to the fatal frog fungus study. Kaichang Li, a wood chemist at Oregon State University who was inspired by the strong hold of barnacles, developed a soy-based adhesive meant to secure plywood.
Lotfi Zadeh, a recently deceased former computer science professor at the University of California Berkeley, will receive the award for his work developing the concept of “fuzzy logic,” an attempt to mathematically account for human logic and observation. It dealt largely with collections of data that weren’t well defined, vague or imprecise.
Interestingly, his research also caught some unwanted attention from Proxmire attention back in the 1970s, and nearly earned him a Golden Fleece Award. His paper on fuzzy logic has since become one of the most oft-cited pieces of research in arenas ranging from mathematics to computer science and technology.
Longcore wasn’t immediately available for an interview on Wednesday.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.