EL native part of scientific discovery

Great people and things have come out of East Liverpool over the course of the city’s history.

Take football coaching legend Lou Holtz or the world renown pottery made by Homer Laughlin for instance, but not often can the city brag they produced someone who would go on to help solve a puzzle that has baffled scientists for eight decades.

East Liverpool township native Dr. Jason A. Smith has done just that, working as part of a research team at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science to identify a fungi responsible for nearly driving Florida’s Torreya Tree to extinction.

According to Smith, the Torreya tree is now one of the world’s rarest trees, and is found almost exclusively in Torreya State Park in Liberty and Gasden County, Florida.

Unfortunately, according to Smith, it may be too late to save the Torreya. “The impact on that species is likely extinction within the next couple of decades,” said Smith.

The 1995 East Liverpool High School graduate is determined to apply the lessons learned from studying the Torreya to prevent more tree species from suffering a similar fate.

“Unfortunately, new exotic diseases and insect pests threaten both food production and natural resources in the U.S. with greater intensity every year,” said Smith.

While most Ohioans have not even heard of the Torreya tree, which grows several hundred miles away in the Florida panhandle, Smith explained that the pathogen identified by he and his team could potentially infect Fraser Fir and Red Spruce in the Appalachian Mountains.

“In our tests these species were actually more susceptible than the Torreya,” said Smith, explaining the danger posed by the fungus spreading to other species.

Part of the potential for the pathogen to spread stems from people who Smith refereed to as “citizen scientists” or environmental activist planting Torreyas in the southern Appalachian Mountains to help the species avoid going extinct.

“It may be that the relative isolation of Torreya in the panhandle of Florida kept the pathogen from affecting these other species, but that is just a hypothesis,” said Smith.

When questioned if the fungus he helped identify could pose a threat to Ohio’s trees, Smith stated that the threat is “unknown” adding Ohio’s forests are “currently under threat from several other devastating insects and diseases including the emerald ash borer and Asian longhorned beetle.”

Hearing Smith talk about Ohio’s trees, it is clear that Smith’s love of the outdoors comes from growing up in the area. “Can you imagine Ohio without sugar maples and ash in the fall? Beaver Creek State Park without black walnuts and hemlocks?” said Smith, speaking to the dangers facing the Ohio valley’s tree population.

Smith, who now holds a PHD in Plant Pathology and works as a associate professor at the University of Florida, is proud to say that he spent his childhood in a way that is becoming increasingly rare these days: outdoors.

“I was fortunate to have a ‘tech-free’ childhood and spent my time playing in the woods, going on hikes with my dad and brothers and learning about gardening and plants from my Pappap and mom.” said Smith.

Today, his passion for the outdoors and love of science has translated into a successful and fulfilling career. “I’m lucky to have been able to find a career doing what I love,” said Smith. “I now get to travel the world learning about trees and helping to figure out why they are sick and what to do about it.”

When he’s not helping solve decades’ old scientific mysteries, Smith has more than enough to keep him busy with teaching, research, work for his university’s extension office and of course spending time with his 5-year-old son, Ranger, who he says is displaying an early interest in the natural world much like his father.

Part of Smith’s passion as an educator is to educate coming generations on the importance of ecosystem health. He has recently teamed up with an environmental education professor to develop a K-12 curricula focused on teaching students the importance of forest health. “Many of these kids have never heard of a fungus or thought about the importance of keeping forests healthy, so we hope to significantly raise awareness of these issues in future generations – our own livelihood, sustainability and survival may depend on it.”