Jeff Foster: Tracking Pathogens

Jeff Foster, PhD

foster deep

Associate Director, NAU Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics (MGGen)

Research Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences

College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences

Jeff Foster, Associate Director, Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics (MGGen), and Research Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University (NAU), is interested chiefly in the interface between pathogens and their ecology. Because his education and career have led Foster to quite a range of projects in different parts of the world, he says, “I’m part ecologist, part conservation biologist, part disease ecologist, part microbiologist. . . . I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve seen a lot of the world through my work.” On the horizon for Foster, he says, is a possible trip to Ecuador to conduct human disease-related research. He is looking forward to this trip not only because of the research but also because Ecuador has an extremely diverse bird population, and Foster is an avid birder.When I walk into Dr. Jeff Foster’s office, I am greeted with a bright, welcoming smile and an apology for “the mess.” Piles of papers are scattered across the desk in an otherwise tidy workspace. Curious, I ask, “What are all of these?” As Foster sifts through each document he explains, “These are just some projects I’m working on.” He glances at the one in his hand and turns it toward me: “Cystic fibrosis research,” he says. “Here’s an article on bacterial evolution. This is a map of bird populations on an island in Hawaii.”  While he may be busy with many projects, Foster is distinctly approachable.

At MGGen, Foster is currently overseeing a research project on the Geomyces destructans fungus, which causes the lethal white-nose syndrome in bats. He and his team of five undergraduate researchers and one postdoctoral researcher are tracking the origins of the fungus (suspected to have been unintentionally carried into the United States from Europe by a human) using genetic sequencing. White-nose syndrome has killed nearly 6 million bats in the eastern United States and Canada since 2007.  Because of the important role bats play in insect control and agriculture, Foster’s project has important biological ramifications. It is also right up his alley as a researcher with its blend of microbiology, disease ecology, and conservation.

After deciding he was interested in avian ecology, Foster wrote his dissertation on exotic bird invasions into the forests of Hawaii. Then, with a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Illinois, Foster ventured to Washington DC to work for the Smithsonian Institution as a postdoctoral researcher. There he studied avian malaria in Hawaiian honeycreepers. He says, “That was the first time I did extensive genetics work, and I do almost entirely genetics work now, so that was really a key moment. [It was also] the beginning of my disease work.” In 2007, Foster came to NAU as a postdoctoral research associate.

“I find my job really intellectually satisfying. I’m curious by nature. I find that every day I’m faced with a different kind of puzzle in science, and I have to find ways to solve it. I’m creating knowledge; I love that aspect of it,” Foster said. “Going into [research], you really don’t know where your research will lead you, so it’s a process of discovery and putting puzzle pieces together.”

When asked what or who has inspired him to pursue his research career, Foster responded, “I grew up with a next-door neighbor who was a nature writer. He used to take me fishing.  so he inspired me for sure. I had a really superb geology teacher in junior high school. . . [who] definitely inspired me. Also, my parents encouraged me to pursue whatever path I wanted. I had a really strong natural sciences upbringing; I was outdoors a lot so that certainly affected my worldview.”

Living in Flagstaff allows Foster to continue to stay close to these field ecologist roots. “I do a good deal of hiking,” he said. “I like to go birding when I have time.”

--Emily Litvack





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