By Jack Payne
Dail Laughinghouse wants to keep CNN from returning to your community to get more pictures of green slime.
He’s an algae slayer. And he saw a dragon in the footage of last summer’s bloom.
It so happened that the timing of the images coincided with a help wanted sign at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. UF/IFAS sought the state’s first applied phycologist, an algae scientist, to work at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.
Laughinghouse (who is PSA’s webmaster) saw a huge opportunity for science to keep your community healthy, the water surfaces clear, and the crisis-chasing media away.
Yet the slime will return, and he intends to be the go-to guy for the science of solutions. As another UF/IFAS scientist said, we want Laughinghouse to be the expert CNN will call in search of explanations to go with their images.
He’ll also be the guy you go to for what to do next and for information on how to make these episodes less frequent and less acute.
Universities get lampooned for our obsessions with what look like esoteric things. Those little things, like algae, can get big quickly. So we need specialized knowledge of those little things.
That’s why, when UF/IFAS got state funding for a new weed scientist, we hired a phycologist.
Esoteric? You bet. The Phycological Society of America reports about 300 professional members.
And you’re unlikely to meet many folks at parties who boast, as Laughinghouse did in his application, “I am well known in the cyanobacterial community.” In fact, one of his new bosses at the Ft. Lauderdale Research and Education Center joked that Laughinghouse’s expertise is so unusual that it’s kind of like speaking Klingon.
Speak he does, rapidly, enthusiastically, and with a sense of urgency about the work he’ll do in the local area, state and beyond.
He’ll tell you about staying up late in his bedroom as a 19-year-old looking at algae under a microscope because he couldn’t get enough of it. He can tell you about how he’s looked at algae near both poles and in the tropics, in his native Brazil and in Washington, D.C., where he was contracted as a senior algae scientist at the Smithsonian Institution.
He says without a trace of irony, “Algae is not just my job. It’s my passion.”
It wasn’t immediately evident to us university types where to place Laughinghouse. We eventually slotted him in the UF/IFAS agronomy department, where he can work with crop scientists on the relationship between nutrient loads and algae.
Laughinghouse will also be affiliated with the UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, where he can collaborate with experts who can help him slay algae without threatening water purity with too much or the wrong kind of algaecides.
UF/IFAS’s job is to address problems with science. In many locations around the state, that means algae science.
Success would be for Laughinghouse to be welcomed into your community as an honest broker of science, not someone who’s coming in to point his Ph.D. finger in blame.
In fact, we hope Laughinghouse’s science can be a bit of a social salve as well. He arrives knowing full well that there are deep divisions over whose responsibility it is for preventing and controlling algae blooms.
That’s a policy question, and people are entitled to their opinions and ideologies to guide their approaches. They’re not entitled to their own facts. My vision is that the work of Laughinghouse, UF/IFAS algae ecologist Ed Phlips, and partner research agencies will provide a common understanding of the problem. Ideally, that will help create consensus around political, social, and economic solutions.
The state legislature invested in an expansion of UF/IFAS expertise, and has given us latitude in determining what type of expertise we need. We didn’t wait for images of the algae bloom to announce that need loud and clear.
Laughinghouse will be looking at algae, blooms or not, through a microscope and knee-deep in swamps.
Success means you’ll be seeing a lot less algae on your waterways, and a lot less on your computer and television screens.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.