December 14, 2007

Student from Belleville captures thesis honor

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A zoology student from the Metro East area is the winner of this year's Alumni Association Outstanding Master's Thesis award at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

A six-member faculty committee judged the thesis of Forrest M.R. Brem, of Belleville, as the top one of 2007. The graduate school also submitted the thesis, titled "Comparing Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis infection prevalence among habitats before, during and after an epidemic in Central Panama," to a national competition.

Brem will receive a $500 cash prize during the SIU Alumni Association's meeting in April. The association also will honor his adviser, Karen R. Lips, associate professor of zoology at SIUC.

Currently a doctoral student at the University of Memphis, Brem is the son of Robert and Barbara Brem. He said he was shocked to learn he had won the award.

"I got a call from the dean while I was driving to school," Brem said. "I almost had a heart attack and drove off the road in excitement."

The thesis focused on a deadly fungus that is wiping out frog populations in Central America. The specific fungus Brem studied, know as "Bd" for short, likely has driven many amphibian species to extinction during the last 20 years, said Lips, an internationally recognized expert in this area.

Doing the research required Brem to travel on several occasions to remote locations in Central America, where he spent weeks taking samples and making observations.

Immediately after he finished taking a first round of samples from the healthy population, the Bd fungus arrived. Brem ended up staying on site in Panama for three months, documenting the epidemic and destruction of the amphibian population.

Lips said Brem's work provided vital information that was missing from the research record.

"This was the first time anybody had ever watched the complete cycle of infection, and the first time long-term data were available for both the amphibians and the disease," Lips said. "It is extremely rare for a disease to cause the extinction of their hosts, so little is known about the factors that could cause disease-induced extinction."

Because Brem was able to study the frog population before, during and after infection, he was able to learn several important things about why the fungus is so deadly, Lips said. For instance, he found the amphibians' environment, which featured high host density, low host resistance and high transmissibility of the fungus among other factors, played an important role in its lethality. He also was the first researcher to discover that infectious zoospores could survive outside a host, likely contributing further to its high transmissibility, Lips said.

"From Forrest's work we now know that: prevalence of Bd infection increases most rapidly in stream-dwelling amphibian communities and more slowly in terrestrial communities," Lips said. He also found Bd can be present in all habitats and all elevations during an epidemic and some species persist with Bd infection and prevent the recovery of the most vulnerable species and may contribute to its spread, she said. "His thesis has expanded our understanding of factors that cause extinction, knowledge that contributes to the fields of epidemiology and conservation biology."

Brem included the findings in a paper he co-authored on the subject, which appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Brem said he plans to continue working in the field after earning his doctorate.

"I want to go on to advise graduate students conducting research in wildlife disease ecology and develop my own research program at a top-tier research institution," he said.

Lips said she is proud of Brem's work at SIUC.

"Forrest conducted an innovative and important work for his master's thesis that has already contributed to understanding disease dynamics in tropical amphibians," she said.