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Dave Rizzo, a forest pathologist and professor at the University of California at Davis, is trying to halt an epidemic that he has helped make a national priority. For almost 20 years, much of the former Madison biology major's work has been on oak-root fungus and wood-decay fungi in labs and forests far from the public eye. His life changed, however, when he and U.C.-Berkeley colleague Matteo Garbelotto discovered the microbe - Phytophthora ramorum -- that causes sudden oak death. It's a relative of the culprit thought to have caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. Now Dave is in demand across the nation for conference presentations, town hall briefings and news media interviews as he and his colleague command six-figure budgets and sizeable lab teams aimed at finding a way to save California's landmark oaks and prevent sudden oak death, which already is affecting more than 100 types of plants, from spreading to East Coast forests, where red oak, beech and rhododendron might be susceptible. Today Dave attributes an eerie foreshadowing to his JMU biology class and field trips into Virginia's forests and woods. During a field trip, he recalls noticing a stump of an American chestnut tree decimated by the chestnut blight that spread across the East. "I thought that was interesting that a disease could wipe out a whole forest," he recalls. "Little did I know that I would be working on a disease that might do the same thing."
"There's pressure out there," Rizzo says. "If you get frustrated easily, you wouldn't be in this business."