The 2021 Great Lakes Leadership Award recognized Prof. David M. Lodge, ecology and evolutionary biology, for his development of genetic testing tools to prevent the spread of invasive species in freshwater and marine ecosystems.
Lodge, the director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, was one of six recipients of the award, intended to celebrate for trailblazing and innovative work conducted on behalf of the Great Lakes.
According to David Rankin, executive director of the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the fund hopes to support innovations and projects that improve the ecological health of the Great Lakes ecosystem. To date, the 32-year-old organization has invested $92 million in projects and teams.
Rankin said the Leadership award was designed to recognize individuals and organizations working on freshwater issues globally. The fund specifically recognized Lodge for his pioneering work on the use of environmental DNA.
Using eDNA, researchers can extract the DNA contained in a water sample and identify all the organisms in the body of water. According to Lodge, locating organisms is crucial for managing invasive species and endangered organisms.
“It’s not so easy to know where organisms are because you can look at the surface of the water all you want, but you’re not going to know what’s underneath there,” Lodge said. “What we have found is we can just take a water sample and tell you all the fish that are out there because all those organisms, just like humans, leave a trail of DNA behind.”
The main advantage of the eDNA tool over conventional identification methods like nets and electrofishing is its enhanced sensitivity. Relatively small samples of water contain the DNA of most of the organisms that occupy the ecosystem.
The work that Lodge and his team have done with eDNA has been implemented worldwide to prevent and manage invasive species. The innovation has been particularly helpful in the management of invasive Asian carp in the Great Lakes region.
“Those critters have been slowed down substantially because of what David and his collaborators have done,” Rankin said.
Lodge’s innovation has reached freshwater ecosystems beyond the Great Lakes basin, which itself makes up 21 percent of the world’s freshwater.
In addition to celebrating Lodge’s innovation, the award recognized his leadership in the freshwater and marine ecosystem field. Rankin specifically lauded Lodge’s collaborative nature, interdisciplinary reach and panoramic research vision.
“What I appreciate about David is that he has, from the start, treated me like a colleague on these projects,” Kara Andres grad, who works in Lodge’s lab, said. “I don’t feel as much of a student when working with him because he involves me in discussions about how the work will get done and the decision making process.”
In his early work on the Federal Advisory Committee on Invasive species, Lodge realized that the research being conducted at the professional level was not geared towards answering the practical questions the committee had. This experience was a “wake up call” for Lodge, and changed the trajectory of his career as a researcher.
The award speaks to all of his colleagues across universities and government agencies over his career, he said.
“It’s wonderful to have work by so many collaborators and be recognized with this award,” Lodge said. “It really is recognizing a lot of collaboration among researchers, and also our collaboration with state and federal agencies over the years developing and applying this new technology called eDNA.”