Real Science Heroes: Attack of the Killer C. Gattii

Real Science-4-Kids wants to recognize youthful ingenuity in the field of science as part of our Real Science Heroes blog series. Enjoy this celebration of a budding scientist who, through a school science fair project, made a real-world difference. ~

For many days an unsuspecting California resident, let’s call her Shirley, had been suffering from common cold symptoms. The usual cough and congestion started to worsen and symptoms advanced to fever and chest pain. When her neck started aching, she knew it was time to head to the doctor. Shirley was diagnosed with a Cryptococcus gattii infection, a fungal infection that can take months or years to manifest symptoms in patients. That’s one sneaky scoundrel.

This had become an all-too-common story in Southern California. Doctors had been fighting this villainous fungus for over a decade. Sometimes they were unsuccessful and people lost their lives to the nasty fungus. The medical establishment needed to know where C. gattii’s lair was located before it could do more damage to the community.

Deborah Springer, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University who studies C. gatti, was sure it would be found lurking among the trees. That was the usual hiding place of this nefarious character, but which type of tree? Deborah just didn’t have the time to find out. Who could she call on in her hour of need? Who could stop the villainous fungus in its tracks and save the citizens of California from future infections?

As luck would have it Elan Filler, an entrepreneurial 7th grader with a trailblazing spirit, was in need of a science fair project. She set her sights on finding C. gattii and began working tirelessly to swab countless trees for culture samples. Not the typical scene for superhero work, nevertheless she was undaunted in her efforts.

Eucalyptus trees were the first suspect, since they were found to harbor the fungus in Australia. Apparently, the trees were keeping it on the up and up in California and their samples came out clean. The search would have to be broadened.

Elan continued to send various tree samples to her sidekick, Deborah Springer, for evaluation. One day, POW, three samples tested positive for the exact strain of C. gattii they were searching for. Samples from Canary Island Pine, New Zealand Pohutukawa, and American Sweet Gum matched medical swabs taken from patients as early as 12 years before. Early treatment was now an option for people known to be exposed to the fungus, and controlling the spread of the fungus could be handled appropriately. Thanks to the efforts of this science hero, the citizens of Southern California can now breathe a little easier.

REMEMBER, grown-ups aren’t the only ones that can make a difference in science! Real Science-4-Kids wants to recognize your student for their hard work today. Your budding scientist could be our featured hero. From science fair exhibits and classroom projects to self-run science experiments, we want to hear about them all.  Let us celebrate your successes with you!

Make a submission. Your story matters. Large or small, we want to hear about them all.

Send submissions to Include a photo along with your story and we can share your experience on our website.