ONALASKA — Becky Lasee peered into a microscope Monday morning for her first glimpse at her namesake. There on the slide, preserved in ethanol, was Henneguya laseeae, a newly discovered parasite found in the gills of Mississippi River catfish.
Lasee, a retired fish biologist, first learned about the parasite last summer when Eric Leis, a former student, invited her to a picnic to tell her he’d discovered a new species.
“I congratulated him,” she said. “I was so happy for him.”
Then Leis told her he was naming it after her.
She was shocked.
Finally, he told her where the new parasite sat in the family tree of about 2,200 known myxozoa: on a branch next to one named for Lasee’s late husband, Dan Sutherland.
“I was just like, wow,” Lasee said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
The discovery happened when Leis, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, noticed some cysts on the gills of flathead catfish caught in the Mississippi River near La Crosse.
Leis cut open a cyst and studied the spores under a microscope. When he couldn’t find records of that particular type of parasite in flathead catfish, Leis had a hunch he might have discovered a new species.
He knew right away he wanted to name his find after Lasee.
Leis had studied biology under Sutherland at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and later landed a job in Lasee’s lab at the La Crosse Fish Health Center in Onalaska. Both made a deep impression on him.
Leis said Dr. Dan, as Sutherland preferred to be called, delivered lectures that felt like they were aimed just at him. Even his exams included little personal jokes. At the lab, Lasee always took extra time explaining the keys used to identify the genus and species of a parasite.
“I was really thankful for the time she put into it,” Leis said. “There’s not a more appropriate way you could thank a mentor.”
Leis called his friend, Matt Griffin, a fellow UW-L graduate who now works at Mississippi State University and who had discovered a parasite he named Henneguya sutherlandi in honor of Sutherland, who died in 2006.
Through close study and genetic sequencing, they realized the new species was closely related to sutherlandi.
“You could never set out to do it,” Leis said of the discovery.
Though honored, Lasee said she was more proud for Leis, who is at work identifying a second Henneguya species he found in the same fish. In her three decade career, Lasee discovered just one species.
“The discovery of a new parasite is what’s really important,” she said. “It’s not something that happens very often.”
A trained biologist, she knows it was coincidence. But she also wants to believe in something more pre-determined.
“It pulls at you,” she said. “Is this my husband’s way of saying hello?”