This is the ninth in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientists Emeriti. Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS.
Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Carol Meteyer
Dr. Carol Meteyer continues to be a pioneer in the field of wildlife health. Throughout her career she has employed a multidisciplinary approach, applying knowledge and expertise in diverse scientific areas, including pathology, physiology, pharmacology, toxicology, wildlife ecology, microbiology, molecular biology, and microbial ecology to study the most critically important diseases in free-living wildlife populations. Dr. Meteyer's creativity and expertise is amply demonstrated in the numerous important discoveries she has made, ranging from determining that diclofenac acid, a commonly used anti-inflammatory drug, was the cause of dramatic declines of vulture populations in Asia; that frog malformations resulted from multiple etiologies and environmental drivers; and co-discovering the infectious cause of white nose syndrome in bats. She continues to conduct ground-breaking work on the strategies that the fungus that causes white nose syndrome in bats uses to infect the mammalian host. Dr. Meteyer has also served in several leadership roles for the wildlife health community, including as an Officer for the Wildlife Disease Association as well as serving on various committees. In summary, Carol has had a remarkable career, and her contributions show no sign of abating. She is an inspiration to future generations of scientists.
National Wildlife Health Center
What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place?
After attending the University of Iowa and teaching high school science, I spent time in the Guanacaste Forest in Costa Rica as a research assistant studying Atta cephalotes, the leaf cutter ants that tend fungal gardens. I completed a degree in veterinary medicine at Iowa State University and moved to Los Angeles as an intern at the “Veterinary Hospital to the Stars” in West Los Angeles. I jumped into scuba diving, mountain climbing, triathlons...and some of the 36-hour transition shifts at the hospital! Probably not a surprise to most, some of the celebrity (and non-celebrity) clients were a challenge! I decided a better fit for me was in a pathology lab quietly unravelling the causes of death. My residency in comparative pathology at University of Southern California and Los Angeles County Medical Veterinary Lab was a bit unconventional. I studied large animals, pets, race horses that died at the tracks in Los Angeles County, animals that died at the USC primate center, marine mammals at Marineland of the Pacific; screened dead wildlife from the Los Angeles basin, foothills, and forests for plague; necropsied animals that died at the Los Angeles Zoo; and participated in the human pathology rounds at the Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center.
I became board certified in veterinary pathology and took a position with the University of California Diagnostic Lab System, becoming Branch Chief of one of the Central Valley Labs and expanding my diagnostic skills to include more species and proficiency in lab testing. A position then opened for a forensic pathologist at the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC). At the time, the NWHC was part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was later incorporated into the USGS as a part of the Biological Resource Division. I jumped at the chance for a career in wildlife pathology and to contribute to the health and prevention of disease in native species. During my career I worked with endangered mammals and birds represented in all of the taxonomic families in North America, and investigated mortality events in reptiles and amphibians. I worked with many others on a pictorial guide to diagnostic criteria for disease in coral, as a product of a NOAA workshop in South Carolina.
How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus?
I began working at the NWHC in 1992. I took a position in the Environmental Health Mission Area at USGS headquarters in 2012 and I retired in 2019.
What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?
I worked as an Assistant Program Coordinator for the Contaminant Biology Program in the Environmental Health Mission Area from 2012 to 2017. I then became a Senior Science Advisor in the Environmental Health Mission Area in 2017 until I retired in 2019. These positions provided me with the opportunity to get to know scientists and their research from across the country. Working with these USGS scientists was the highlight of my work at Headquarters. With new base funding, we were able to develop a new cross-mission area project looking at endocrine disrupting chemicals and their effects in the Chesapeake Bay.
With the help of lead scientists and hundreds of their publications, we developed summaries of USGS science achievements at long-term place-based contaminant study sites and studies of contaminants associated with abandoned mines throughout the country. The place-based studies represented 100 years of science, and described a cutting-edge technique for understanding the fate and effects of ground water contamination by crude oil, low level radiation, mixed hazardous waste, and mixed solvents including trichloroethylene solvents (TCE). The USGS has a similar science legacy with the contributions made to understanding the long-term environmental effects and remediation of abandoned mine lands. These documents capture major achievements of USGS scientists in a way that the public, including Congress, could understand. Summary documents like these make the information and scientific achievements contained in scientific publications accessible in a way that highlights the science of USGS and its contributions to National priorities over multiple decades. Similar documents can also serve as sources of information for budgetary support for USGS programs.
What Science Center do you answer to as an Emeritus?
I am Scientist Emeritus at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, although I live in Slaughter Beach, Delaware on the shore of Delaware Bay.
What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS?
I consider my work as a wildlife pathologist a privilege. As a federal employee and public servant, there is a responsibility to serve where needed. The NWHC receives dead animals from mortality events all across the country. When a new disease emerges, like West Nile Virus or highly pathogenic avian influenza, it is an extra level of time investment and work added to your other duties, but it’s our job to make that intellectual commitment to determine the causes of mortality, both for the wild animals and for people that share their environment; and sometimes, their diseases.
Because no one finds scientific writing easy, I guess I’m happy to have been able to publish first descriptions of pathology in wildlife so that the scientific community could benefit from these “front-line” observations. These publications included the pathology of diclofenac poisoning that caused the near extinction of Gyps vultures of the Indian sub-continent, diagnostic criteria for Newcastle disease in double-crested cormorants, radiographic classification of frog malformations in newly metamorphosed frogs and histology of early malformations in tadpoles of the upper Midwest and Northeast, pathology of monkey pox in prairie dogs, highly pathogenic avian influenza virus and West Nile virus in raptors, iridovirus in salamanders, and white-nose syndrome in hibernating bats.
As a scientist emeritus, I continue to work on white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats. When the NWHC was asked to help with WNS in winter 2007-2008 after it had been detected in hibernating bats in New York, I agreed to help. As winter wore on, I examined over 200 bats that were now dying in states beyond New York. Looking at sections of wing membrane under the microscope, I realized I was holding my breath as I looked at slide after slide of a fungus that was invading the skin of these bats in a manner I had never seen before. Attending a mycology conference, I recognized the pattern of infection I had seen in the wings of bats with WNS and since retirement, ten years later, I have been able to pursue this hypothesis.
What led you to decide to become an Emeritus?
I have drafts of papers that I began at the NWHC that were still unfinished. My job at the NWHC was a clinical position diagnosing the cause of illness and death in wildlife. The only time to write papers was during the evenings and on weekends and, as a single parent raising two daughters, after 20 years early drafts summarizing findings were still not completed when I left the NWHC in 2012.
What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future?
I have built new collaborative partners since retiring. As mentioned above, I had drafted a paper in 2010 outlining my hypothesis for the novel pathology associated with the fungus, Pseudogymnoascus desructans, causing WNS in hibernating bats. Expanding on this draft with evolutionary geneticists at the Max Plan Institute in Germany, we have a paper currently under review in the journal Science.
In November 2019, I was invited to help determine the cause of mortality in the greater one-horned rhino population in Nepal, with microscopic changes from the livers of some of the dead rhinos suggesting blue-green algae poisoning. This was a collaborative effort with a scientist from Cornell University that I had worked closely with during the vulture mortality (and discovery of diclofenac as the cause) in Pakistan in 2002. A wonderful side trip when we were in Nepal was a visit to the first vulture restaurant and breeding center, established a safe zone for vultures after our publication on diclofenac. We were supposed to return in 2020 but this was canceled due to COVID restrictions.
When I returned from my trip to Nepal, I was offered and accepted the honorary KVF Jubb Fellowship position at the University of Melbourne Australia for 2020. This was also postponed indefinitely due to COVID restrictions.
The amazing relationship between spawning horseshoe crabs and the transcontinental migratory birds that depend on the horseshoe crab eggs to survive their flight from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic drew me to Delaware. I moved to my home on the shore of Delaware Bay and began a health study of spawning horseshoe crabs in collaboration with scientists at Johns Hopkins, the National Aquarium, and the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean, and the Environment. These studies resulted in the first diagnostic necropsy guide available for horseshoe crabs.
My location on the Delaware Bay has also afforded me a front-row seat to a wonderful array of birds. Under COVID-19 restrictions during summer 2020, I established a citizen science purple martin breeding survey for the town of Slaughter Beach. Town members with purple martin bird houses filled out the survey online and reported how many apartments were in their houses and how many contained pairs of purple martins. The 2020 survey documented 400 active purple martin nests and community members were excited about putting up more houses in 2021!
Delaware is geographically located at the southern tip of Arctic marine mammal migration and the northern edge of migration for some of the more tropical marine mammals and sea turtles. My move to the Delaware coast provided the opportunity to assist the Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation Institute with marine mammal and sea turtle recovery and help with diagnostic necropsies to determine cause of death for the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus?
I appreciate being able to publish data for new discoveries that were the product of my daily diagnostic work at the NWHC, and collaborate with international colleagues on studies that were outside of the federal mission of the NWHC.
What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus?
Through contacts made in 2019, I am hoping for the opportunity to provide diagnostic pathology training both remotely and on site, to veterinary students at the Agricultural and Forestry University in Bharatpur, Nepal. I also hope to visit colleagues in Malaga, Spain at the Central Wildlife Diagnostic Lab of Andalucia in 2021 and participate in their forensic necropsies.
What is your best advice for early and mid-career scientists?
Learn as much as you can from every position you hold, every project you have, and every collaborator you work with. Don’t stop at the obvious answer, and don’t hesitate to acquire knowledge beyond your expertise to look for answers to the more complicated questions; there is always more to the story.
Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally?
My international travels are mentioned above, but I also traveled across the United States–twice– with my camper in 2019. In total, I travelled 18,000 miles visiting friends and past coworkers, family, and places in this country that are meaningful to me. For the first 6-week trip, my friends and family were a bit nervous for me (since I had never pulled a travel trailer before, I was a bit nervous as well) so they asked I keep a blog so they could keep track of me and make sure I was ok. Writing the blog at the end of the day or during my lunch break on the road was also a way to provide myself with a meaningful way to look at my experiences as I made my way as a solo traveler. If you’re interested, you can read the blog at 2turnstones.com
What was the last book you read?
Apart from reading approximately 150 articles for my recent studies on fungal evolution, plant immunology, P. destructans, and plant fungal pathogens, the two books I read in November are Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and Atomic Habits by James Clear.
What is one characteristic that you believe every good research scientist should possess?
Well, I guess more than one characteristic would be helpful. I would say intellectual discipline, integrity, and a thirst for knowledge.
What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows?
Retire as soon as it is financially feasible and keep expanding your world, your contributions, your opportunities for scientific engagement, and have fun.
How are you spending your time during the pandemic?
When Delaware began to close businesses and restrict travel, I did a LOT of landscaping, personally setting a new 75ft long stone path, doubling the size of one native plant garden and establishing three new ones from thickets of non-native weeds, bushes, and native prickly pear cactus that had taken over.
When the Mispillion Art League pottery studio was open, I made too much pottery (this type of inventory doesn’t fit in a folder). I’ve spent time bird watching and helped with the Hawk Watch migration survey. I have a weekly routine of swimming, running, and biking. I finished the Netflix series The Great British Baking Show, and then did an outrageous amount of baking. I’m also currently working on review article built around host-pathogen evolution, plant immunology, and P. destructans to highlight potential routes of pathogen emergence from plant pathogens, saprophytes and endophytes in a warming planet.