Director’s Letter April 2020

We get through this together

Scientific detectives are pointing to the pangolin as a key puzzle piece in understanding the biological tragedy that has killed tens of thousands, thrown millions out of their jobs, and stranded even more in their homes.  Covered entirely in scales, pangolins are the least cuddly mammal.  Lacking teeth, they use tongues as long as their bodies to eat ants and termites.  The coronavirus, Covid 19, evolved in bats.  But MERS, a 2012 coronavirus that started in the Middle East, moved from bats to camels to humans, and SARS, the 2002 coronavirus, passed through civets on its way from bats to humans.  Based upon genomic data, as well as the spike proteins on the surface of the virus, pangolins appear to be the link in Covid 19.

While not fast enough, it is amazing how quickly science has progressed.  It took 3 months for SARS, but scientists sequenced the Covid 19 genome within days.  We know how the virus is built, including the spike proteins that give it its name and which allow it to break into human cells.  Genomic data allows us to track its path of destruction from Europe to East Coast and China to the West Coast.

We are making such fast progress because society has invested in a fundamental understanding of the world.  Because we understand the biological building blocks, including proteins, RNA, and cells, scientists can quickly piece together Covid 19, how it hijacks human cells, and design vaccines.  When we start saving more lives and get our economies going, it will be because of science.

An interviewer recently asked me how Covid 19 made me feel about field science.  Frustration boiled over after six weeks of home isolation and 20 years of talking, often ineffectively, about the importance of field science.  Covid 19 jumped from the interface between the environment and humans, right at the interface where field stations support science.  We spend essentially nothing on field science, even though managing food, air, water and human disease depend upon our scientific understanding of the environment.

RMBL scientists have used bees to understand the spread of disease in social animals (like humans), and marmots to understand the trade-off between increased disease transmission and the health benefits of being social.  A RMBL alum is a major figure in developing Covid 19 tests.   There is not a direct line between RMBL science and the virus, but RMBL is a critical part of a global network of field stations training scientists and laying a foundation of knowledge so we can quickly and efficiently respond to whatever environmental crisis comes our way.

Virus or not, field research will go on!  We will help early career scientists and foster long-term science, as well as any scientist in need.  While their arrival will be delayed by the virus, I have no doubt the marmoteers (see adjoining article) will continue one of the world’s longest and most complete field studies.  We are on the verge of finalizing details for one of the most innovative summer undergraduate research programs in the face of the virus.  We are busily laying plans to continue field projects for scientists that cannot travel to RMBL.

Regardless of the chronic underfunding of field science, RMBL has been wildly successful because of you!  We are the scientists, the students, the Crested Butte community that puts up with our scientific equipment spread across an amazing landscape, the second homeowners who advise and help fund us, and the general public that follows our Facebook page and media reports.  The ties that have bound us into a community will be what pulls us through the virus!  Together, we will change the world!

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL