On Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that University of Florida scientist Dr. Tom Frazer will serve as Florida’s first Chief Science Officer. In his new position, Frazer will lead efforts to address some of the state’s most critical environmental challenges, including red tide and harmful algal blooms, which have impacted millions of Floridians, says Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and head of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Frazer is the director of the UF School of Natural Resources and Environment and previously served as acting director of UF’s Water Institute. He was featured in Tapping the Source: Inside UF’s Water Institute, part of the University of Florida Press Gatorbytes series.
Gatorbytes detail the far-reaching impact of UF’s research, technologies and innovations—and the UF faculty members dedicated to them. Tapping the Source gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the institute where interdisciplinary researchers are developing new scientific breakthroughs, policy and legal solutions, and pioneering educational programs renowned for addressing state, national, and global water-resource problems. To learn about Frazer’s time at the Water Institute, check out the excerpt below.
Tom Frazer grabbed a scoop net and dipped it into a shallow pool a few miles downstream from the headspring at one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions. Frazer had been scouring the river grass for twenty minutes, but none of it served his needs until now. “This looks great,” Frazer said, picking up a clump of weeds. “This is exactly what I wanted.”
The University of Florida researcher picked through the mottled green mass, looking over his shoulder every few minutes to scan the shoreline for alligators. Frazer had spooked a six-footer a half hour earlier and he knew there would be more reptiles in the area. Then he stopped, plucked a creature out of the grass, and declared, “Elimia floridensis! This is what I was looking for.”
The tiny freshwater snail didn’t look like much. It was smaller than a dime, but believe it or not, it may hold the secret to preserving one of Florida’s most treasured natural assets—the state’s freshwater springs. The overall health of these unique ecosystems has been threatened in recent decades by pollution, over-pumping, and human development. But what exactly ails Florida’s freshwater springs depends on whom you ask. The threats are multifold; the solutions, far more complex. Yet Frazer, along with dozens of colleagues working to understand and protect this valuable resource, is optimistic. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “And I think we are on the right track.”
Frazer, who currently serves as the interim director of the University of Florida’s Water Institute, is passionate about water quality. Born in San Diego, a surfer’s paradise, Frazer bought his first board, a Lightning Bolt, when he was eight years old. As a youngster, he rode the waves of the world’s best breaks—Trestles, Swami’s, La Jolla, and Windansea. “It seemed like I was in the water every day,” he recalled. “When you are a surfer, you learn about water quality at an early age. You know that when you get an earache after surfing, that it is probably because of runoff. You figure out pretty quickly that something in the water made you sick, and you know that it’s just not cool.”
After studying at Humboldt State University, Frazer landed a job monitoring the native fisheries along Oregon’s Klamath River, which was once one of the most productive salmon and steelhead rivers in the American West. The Klamath’s salmon runs played an integral part in the cultures and economies of several Native American tribes. “At the time, people were just beginning to understand the impact that the timber industry was having on the people who lived miles downstream,” Frazer said. “Eventually, I realized that if you want to study fisheries in the ocean, you had to travel inland to the source. I guess you could say that is why you will find a California surfer messing around a Florida spring. Everything starts right here.”
Frazer believes that if you want to understand the ocean, you must first know the estuary. If you want to learn about an estuary, you must study the rivers that feed it. In order to fully understand a river, you must follow it to its source—the spring. “The great Howard T. Odum called them nature’s laboratories,” Frazer explained. “If you want the big picture, you start right here.”