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Jo-Ann Leong smiling on a beach in Hawaii

Retired Microbiologist Wins Lifetime Achievement in Science Award

By Kaitlyn Hornbuckle

A devastating disease killed millions of fish and disrupted their migrations across the Columbia River in the 1980s. Microbiologist Jo-Ann Leong never imagined that her quest for a new vaccine would ultimately change the world we live in today. From researching tissues to studying coral diseases, her path to winning the Lifetime Achievement in Science Award turned out to be a tsunami full of surprises.

This award honors exceptional and significant contributions to science over the course of a lifetime either through research, scholarship or teaching.

Finding a fascination with viruses

Obtaining her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Virology at the University of California, San Francisco was just a drop in the bucket for the serendipitous tsunami.

Many miles away in Corvallis, Oregon, a faculty member suddenly left the College of Science, leaving a position in virology open.

While her peers raced to send applications to top medical schools across the country, Leong considered leaving the bustling city for a change of pace. It was a gamble, considering “going to Corvallis is not what my classmates would normally pick,” she said.

After a phone call and interview, she landed the position as an assistant professor. When she arrived in 1975, she started as a fish out of water, attempting to start a virology lab for the first time. For a while, she was the only woman professor in Nash Hall.

Leong balanced work with raising her two-year-old daughter by herself. Her husband, constrained by the demands of his anesthesiology residency in California, couldn’t relocate with her. “We moved the family to Corvallis and he would fly up every other weekend to be with her.”

Learning how to run a virology lab, mentor graduate students and teach courses proved to be more difficult than she thought. At the same time, it was the perfect setup for groundbreaking hands-on learning opportunities.

Leong's staff and graduate students posing with smiling faces and sports equipment.

Leong’s staff and graduate students pose for a 1978 Christmas card in the lab.

“Medical schools are set up so that you can just call down and have the medium made for you because they were organized for that kind of stuff,” Leong said. It turns out that working in higher education was different. “I remember struggling because I had never made media before. I had to make it myself at Corvallis,” she said.

Media is a substance typically put on Petri dishes to provide nutrients to microorganisms and help them grow. Leong enforced sterile conditions to make the lab a safe and successful environment. But it wasn’t easy.

Four decades ago, research techniques looked very different. “In California, we had Petri dishes and plastic growth chambers that you threw away when you were done. I came to Corvallis and saw they were using glass bottles instead. It was just different,” she said.

Leong challenged her graduate students to make enzymes and other materials from scratch. Everyone learned how to manually analyze samples–a notably more difficult task before the advent of automated gene sequencers.

Leong’s lab used DNA techniques to detect evidence of endogenous retroviruses in fresh placentas soon after women gave birth in the hospital. For Leong, this meant transporting placentas to the lab at 3 or 4 a.m. with her sleeping daughter in her arms.

“If I didn’t have those students and a really supportive Chair, I don’t know if I would have survived,” she said.

The long hours and enthusiasm for virus research did not go unnoticed. From gigantic genomes to viruses with only a limited set of genes, the research opportunities are endless. “You know what I find fascinating about a virus?” Leong said. “You can do all kinds of things with five genes and if you want to use them to begin to understand how the cell works, therein lies a whole wealth of studies you can do.”

Two graduate students processing placentas with a little girl (Leong's daughter) using microscopes and other lab equipment.

Leong’s graduate students and her daughter process placentas together. They conducted this type of research in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Lethal disease leads to uncharted waters

Fast forward to the 1980s, when a sudden virus rocked the Pacific Northwest. Millions of fish suddenly dropped dead in the Columbia River from the Infectious Hematopoietic Necrosis Virus (IHNV), a disease researchers knew little about. Mysteriously enough, the virus only affected steelhead trout and salmon, leaving other fish unharmed.

Every year, salmon and trout frantically traverse the Columbia River, racing upstream and back to their birthplace. There, they spawn offspring that eat and live their busy lives downstream.

This sudden increase in deaths caused a serious problem resulting in millions of dollars in losses annually in the U.S. If these die-offs continued, even non-seafood lovers would notice the impact on the ecosystem.

The Columbia River serves as the largest concentration of hydroelectric power in the U.S., generating 40% of the total hydroelectric generation in 2012. However, there’s a catch—the fish need to succeed.

“The movement of water over those dams along the Columbia River is controlled by the salmon and their return, so the generation of power is an important component,” Leong said.

To preserve the ecosystem, one strategy is to raise more fish to make this journey. In the 1980s, the cost to raise one Chinook salmon capable of surviving the trip was approximately $670. “The cost is a tax on all of us that we pay for in many respects. And it’s a creature that we need to preserve,” she said.

Salmon not returning home has monumental ecological consequences. The entire ecosystem relies on the successful movement of fish back and forth along the river. The river’s health and vitality are sustained by what the salmon consume and their activity, impacting energy usage, food availability, species conservation, and overall ecosystem health.

For Leong, this presented a new avenue for exploration and opportunity. Through this research, she helped discover a new genus of the virus, new treatments, and a recombinant DNA vaccine for salmon.

She didn’t do this alone. Collaborating with John Fryer, the Chairman of Microbiology, she helped found the Center for Salmon Disease Research at Oregon State, where the first work on vaccines for fish took place. At the time, there was no other facility of this type and complexity in the county – specifically the clean water, disease-free conditions, and quarantine capabilities. Finding vaccines and other solutions for fish diseases continues at the center to this day.

Four faculty members outside digging with shovels while smiling and laughing.

On January 24, 1989 Leong (center left), former Oregon State President John Byrne (center right) and John Fryer (far right) hit the ground digging with a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Center for Salmon Disease Research at Oregon State.

After spending more than 25 years at Oregon State, Leong rose through the ranks. When named Distinguished Professor, her jaw dropped and she nearly fell off her seat at the faculty meeting.

She proceeded to serve on Search Committees for University Presidents, assumed roles on National Committees and took on various additional responsibilities.

Leong shared her expertise globally, presenting her work to professionals worldwide, including the European Fish Association in Spain and aquaculture farms in Japan, Norway, China, and Chile. Due to limited resources, some of these farms practiced diverse ways to treat fish diseases.

Four individuals sitting at a Japanese restaurant table wearing food garments.

On October 24, 1991 Leong (center) celebrates and shares new discoveries with her colleagues at the Oji International Symposium on Salmonid Diseases in Sapporo, Japan. This is one of multiple international events Leong attended.

“Salmon lice is a huge problem, and they couldn’t use some of the anti-lice compounds,” she said. Given that some of the salmon were raised for human consumption, alternative measures were sought. “Sometimes they would bring out a bag of rotting onions from the tank because they were hoping it would keep the lice away. It was the only thing they had at the time.”

A vaccine could change that. Numerous farms sought to develop and use antiviral vaccines for their struggling marine life, which Leong’s work made possible.

Moving forward and across the ocean

After her time at Oregon State, she returned to Hawaii to help take care of her family, including her now 101-year-old mother and 103-year-old father. Departing from Oregon State meant she had to drop her virology research.

She landed a new position as director of the Marine Institute at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The problem was she is a microbiologist – not a marine biologist.

When she arrived, the lab needed a microbiology background in aquaculture, especially in fish rearing and coral disease research. With 17 other faculty members, Leong led the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, including more than 50 graduate students.

Despite being an ocean away, she aimed to maintain her strong Oregon roots. “I used my own funds to bring some of the faculty over. I tried very hard to keep those friendships very strong because I didn’t want to leave them.”

Leong's leadership roles grew including serving as the chairman of the Board of Directors for the Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture, the president of the National Association of Marine Laboratories, and on the executive secretariat for the National Advisory Committee on Development and Assessment of Climate. When she retired, she thought about stopping science but when her friends kept calling her up to edit new books, she couldn’t resist.

When recalling her wild water adventures, she offers advice for aspiring scientists. “When I was young, I wish I knew to choose subjects and people not because they make you feel good, but because they are doing wonderful things for science and society,” Leong said. “Look to the future and decide what it is that you want, short and long-term, and then make the decision.”

Currently, she enjoys painting, playing piano, growing tomatoes, embarking on boat trips to Indonesia, and engaging in things she didn’t have time for before. Not to mention creating more memories with her husband in a marriage of 57 years and counting.

Even though many years have come and gone, she doesn’t forget the people who supported her through the struggles and the triumphs.

“I grew up as a scientist, teacher, and communicator at Oregon State,” Leong said. “My colleagues have been supportive and the College of Science administration as well as the College of Agricultural Sciences were so helpful as I was struggling as a young professor.”