The official title of the seminar was “Recent Advances in Applying Genetics and Genomics to Conservation,” but it was really about family.
Dozens of scientists who started their careers under the wing of University of Montana geneticist Fred Allendorf came to celebrate his influence at the North America Congress for Conservation Biology in Missoula on Monday. The highly technical field has helped unlock the mysteries of Pacific salmon migration, protect westslope cutthroat trout from hybridization, and explain how domestic dogs and wild wolves are cross-breeding in Europe.
“It’s great to see all the ‘Allendorfians’ who have populated the world,” said Chris Funk, a Colorado State University researcher and former student of Allendorf’s. “Fred saw early on that genetics could help conservation management and could be brought to solve real-world problems. If there was a genomics hall of fame, Fred would be in the inaugural class.”
Monday’s seminar also got the first word that the U.S. Forest Service was dedicating a new National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation on the UM campus to Allendorf.
“The Forest Service never would have got to any kind of initiative like this without the presence of Fred Allendorf here,” said Michael Schwartz of the agency’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula. “The charter should be signed next week.”
Schwartz was one of many presenters at the seminar who plunged into the esoteric world of teasing apart genes and DNA to learn how organisms adapt to their environments. But he also recalled the “Book of Fred,” a compendium of advice for students learning to master a difficult scientific discipline. It included tips like, “Those who use lots of pictures, colors and animation in their presentations are trying to hide poor data.”
Allendorf’s wife, Michel Colville, was killed and he was seriously injured in February when a freak avalanche destroyed their home at the base of Mount Jumbo. He was wearing a leg brace at the seminar.
“My wife and I always thought of the grad students like our kids,” Allendorf said. “These problems go back to Darwin, only now its driven by the human genome project. The same principles of genomics apply to humans and grizzly bears. We understand the mechanisms so much better now.”