Cancer claims JSU biologist Frank Romano
by Tim Lockette
Aug 18, 2012 | 7900 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville State University professor Frank Romano uses binoculars to check pine trees for evidence of woodpecker activity during a field trip in 2005. (File photo / The Anniston Star / Trent Penny)
Jacksonville State University professor Frank Romano uses binoculars to check pine trees for evidence of woodpecker activity during a field trip in 2005. (File photo / The Anniston Star / Trent Penny)
Frank Romano, a Jacksonville State University biologist who knew more than almost anyone about the world’s hardiest creatures, died Thursday after a second bout with esophageal cancer.

Colleagues said Romano was 63 or 64.

“I can’t tell you how much we’re going to miss him,” said George Cline, a JSU biology professor who was Romano’s close friend. “It’s also a big loss for his field.”

Romano spent much of the past two decades hunting for and cataloguing tardigrades — microscopic animals that can survive extremes of cold and dryness. Colleagues say he discovered four new species of tardigrade: one in Talladega National Forest, three in the Gulf of Mexico.

A New York native with a Ph.D. from Syracuse University, Romano came to JSU in 1989, expecting to study snails.

Mollusk physiology was Romano’s specialty, Cline said, and Alabama is rich in snail species.

It wasn’t long before Romano got hooked on tardigrades, a little-studied creature at the time.

“You’ve got to love these organisms,” Cline said. “Here’s a creature that’s so small, it exists at the very edge of visual perception. But when you get them under a microscope, they’re gorgeous.”

Rarely more than a millimeter in length, and usually much smaller, tardigrades are eight-legged, water-dwelling animals that look a bit like the Very Hungry Caterpillar from the famous children’s book.

Benjie Blair, one of Romano’s former students who now runs JSU’s biology department, said Romano called them “waterbears,” an old nickname for tardigrades.

“And they really do look like that — like teddy bears,” Blair said.

Tardigrades are also tough, a quality that has intrigued scientists in recent years.

“All molecular motion stops at absolute zero,” Cline said, referring to extremely cold temperatures. “But tardigrades have been taken down to absolute zero, or as near as you can get them, and when they’re thawed out and given water, they’re alive.”

Romano was tough, too. Cline’s specialty is ecology, but he sometimes followed Romano into the field, collecting mosses that might contain new species of waterbears. He was hard to keep up with.

“He was 100 miles an hour all the time,” Cline said.

Colleagues said Romano was a speed demon in JSU’s vans, turning field work at the Talladega National Forest into a series of white-knuckle rides. Before his days in academia, Cline said, Romano was a mechanic for a road-racing team and occasionally got behind the wheel in competition.

Romano drove an early-model Mustang painted in the original factory yellow; he was always willing to change his colleagues’ brake pads if they asked him. Cline recalls an embarrassing moment when he asked Romano for help because he couldn’t figure out how to change a new style of headlamp on his car.

“He opened it up and popped out this little 2-inch bulb,” Cline said. “His son was there, and he got a kick out of that — the Ph.D. who can’t change a light bulb.”

Romano was also known for his sense of humor. He would sometimes host “Very Bad Movie Night,” getting friends together to make fun of the bad science in films like “The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy.”

But it was the creatures he studied — too small to see, but found everywhere — that sounded like something from a B-grade movie.

Waterbears have thrived even after short trips into orbit. To bring them back from seeming death, just add water.

“There’s a process called cryptobiosis,” said Brent Nichols, one of Romano’s former students who now owns an environmental consulting firm in Florida. In cryptobiosis, Nichols said, tardigrades can remove the water from their own cells and go into a dormant state for long periods of time.

Romano went on to become a leader among the small band of scientists actively studying tardigrades. Nichols said there were mere hundreds of scientists studying waterbears worldwide.

“He was the guy for marine tardigrades, especially from the Gulf of Mexico,” Cline said.

Romano traveled occasionally to Europe to present papers on waterbears. He often sailed on the Gordon Gunter, a research vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he collected mud samples from the floor of the Gulf, colleagues said. In those samples, he discovered three previously unknown species of waterbear.

Romano was chair of JSU’s biology department when he retired in May. Colleagues said his health was the main reason for his retirement.

Years earlier, Romano had gone to his doctor with what he believed was a case of acid reflux disease, Cline said. Tests showed that it was esophageal cancer.

Blair, who studies cell biology, said Romano was soon picking his brain for information on cancers.

“He became an expert on it,” Blair said. “He read everything that was published about esophageal cancer.”

Cline said the disease went into remission. But in April 2011, Romano announced to friends that it had returned. Colleagues say he went through chemotherapy and surgery after the diagnosis.

“He fought hard,” Blair said.

Romano is survived by his wife, Elaine, and three grown children. Colleagues say that in his last few months, he saw the unveiling of an outdoor classroom at JSU named in his honor.

He was also working on a plan to bring graduate students from Italy to JSU to help him collect and study samples, Cline said. But it’s not clear where the university would find another researcher with as much skill in Romano’s specialty.

“He was one of the best,” Cline said.

Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @Tlockette_Star
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