CHARLESTON, W.Va. - More than 9,000 miles away from his home state, a Charleston native is part of a marine biology team that has made a remarkable discovery about a tiny species called the furry coral crab.
What they have learned at the Great Barrier Reef has implications for the future of coral reefs around the world - and that's something that can benefit even landlocked West Virginia.
The furry coral crab - or cymo melanodactylus crab for those of you who prefer proper biological names - was suspected of causing a deadly coral disease called white syndrome. The syndrome spreads fast and devastates the coral population.
But thanks to research by a team that includes Joe Pollock, a 2002 graduate of George Washington High School who now is a PhD student and Fulbright scholar at Australia's James Cook University, we now know that little crab is actually helping the coral reefs plagued by white syndrome.
Instead of causing the disease, as was once thought, the furry coral crab slows the disease.
The next step, Pollock said, is determining exactly how.
His hypothesis - because scientists use that word instead of "guess" or "believe" - is that those little crabs are feeding on the icky, white syndrome-affected coral tissue. (Icky being a word that scientists probably don't use.)
He has compared it to a scene in the Russell Crow movie "Gladiator," where he has a shoulder wound cleaned by maggots. Gross, but effective.
Here's why you should care about this 9,000 miles away:
* Coral reefs are a vitally important part of our ecosystem. They protect our shores from weather systems.
* They provide habitats and breeding areas for all sorts of ocean life. "If you don't have these reefs, you don't have fish," Pollock said.
* Coral reefs worldwide are tourist attractions.
* The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has called coral reefs the "medicine cabinets of the 21st century," because they are sources of new medicines being developed to treat everything from cancer and arthritis to infection.
Pollock, now 28, didn't head off to college intending to study marine biology.
In fact, he headed to the University of Kentucky to major in biology and intended to become a doctor like his dad, Charleston orthopedic surgeon Fred Pollock. His three siblings all have pursued careers in science fields.
He loved the ocean and fondly recalls big extended family trips to the Outer Banks of North Carolina when he was a kid. He took an introductory scuba class during a trip to Mexico with his dad.
But during a National Science Foundation-funded fellowship at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida when he was an undergraduate at Kentucky, Pollock spent time studying the ailing bay scallop population and something clicked.
"It seemed like this was the perfect job," Pollock recalled. "My favorite part about science is getting to ask questions, and you got to ask a lot of questions."
After he earned his biology degree, Pollock tested the waters a bit more with short-term fellowships at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Science.