Brian Mullen for NPR
Last year, Tom Mather caught 15,000 deer ticks in the woods of southern Rhode Island. "People really need to become tick literate," the University of Rhode Island researcher says.
Last year, Tom Mather caught 15,000 deer ticks in the woods of southern Rhode Island. "People really need to become tick literate," the University of Rhode Island researcher says. Brian Mullen for NPR
Most people try to avoid ticks. But not Tom Mather.
The University of Rhode Island researcher goes out of his way to find them.
He looks for deer ticks — poppy seed-sized skin burrowers — in the woods of southern Rhode Island. These are the teeny-tiny carriers of Lyme disease, an illness that can lead to symptoms ranging from nasty rashes to memory loss.
Mather's not having much trouble finding deer ticks. In fact, he just might be the best deer tick collector in the country. He caught 15,000 of them last year.
His success is a sign of a growing problem. Adult-sized deer ticks are thriving throughout much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest.
Mather has a trim gray beard and a runner's build. He moves through the undergrowth with precision. He goes from one plant to another, sometimes plucking off ticks five at a time.
"You know. I can hold eight to 10 in my fingers and do it that way," Mather says. "If there is more than that, usually I will sort of touch the branch to my thigh and let the ticks crawl up on my leg, and then I have a couple seconds to pick them before they start walking away."
Mather doesn't have to go into the deep woods to find ticks. A lot of times, he's practically in people's wooded backyards.
"People would be incredulous if they only knew," he says.
But most people can't spot the ticks. They're tiny. Deer ticks tend to be a little smaller than dog ticks, and they're pretty good at blending in with their surroundings, too.
Mather has spent about 30 years studying deer ticks. When he started, he didn't know the organism would become the focus of his academic life — or something that sends him into tick-infested areas for work.
"This wouldn't be the job that most people would want — walking through the brush getting pricked and latched onto by ticks at the same time," Mather says, laughing. "I think it's great."
Just down the road from these woods is Mather's lab at the University of Rhode Island campus.
"When we bring the ticks back in from the field, we just keep them in the refrigerator," he says.
Probably half of the adult deer ticks he encountered in the woods carry some sort of pathogen like the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. And most of the ticks he collects this fall will be used for research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 24,000 people last year in the U.S. contracted Lyme disease.
Brian Mullen for NPR
Most people don't notice deer ticks. They're tiny, the size of poppy seeds.
Most people don't notice deer ticks. They're tiny, the size of poppy seeds. Brian Mullen for NPR
"People really need to become tick literate," he says. "When not so many people got sick it seemed like less of an issue. When more people get sick ... you need to know more about the situation."
Mather had Lyme disease — once. He's fine now, but he knows plenty of people who didn't fare as well. That's one reason why he's gathering ticks to use for the development of effective vaccines to fight tick-borne diseases.
"I feel that research has to be done for a purpose," he says. "And the purpose is to protect people. In this case, protect people from being bitten and getting a disease, or several diseases."
And that's why Mather will venture back into the woods, whistling to himself as he collects thousands more ticks.