To University of Kansas junior Hannah Reid, fungi are more than just mushrooms, molds, or yeast. They are a source of inspiration that became the focus of a research project supported by Kansas NSF EPSCoR.
For 10 weeks of summer 2021 Hannah got the chance to investigate fungal communities living in different soil types with Maggie Wagner, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas.
High-tech lab tools were essential for the project. And surprisingly, so was a hammer.
Here’s Hannah’s story.
What was the focus of your research?
At the start of the summer my mentor and I discussed options for my project. I told her that all I wanted to do was research fungi. So, we came up with a project where I grew tall grass prairie plants in soil taken from either a dry climate or a wet climate to see what fungi grows in and around the roots of the plants.
How did you find out which fungi were growing in the roots?
We analyzed the DNA of cultures of fungi that we grew from samples we got from the plant roots. To get those samples, I took the plants out of the soil, removed a little root, and then put the root in a solution inside a plastic bag. Then, I just hammered it until it became a mush.
You used a hammer?
It was honestly kind of fun! Until someone came along from another department who heard me hammering. I felt like saying – yes, I am doing science!
What did you do next?
I plated the mush on culture dishes and then put the dishes in a growth chamber, which I had never seen before — I felt very high-tech! Then I took a sample of the different colonies that grew on the plate and used PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to amplify the DNA. It was fun to see all the different fungi that grew. There was one that grew into a flower shape (third dish in image above). Some fungal types, like a yeast, grew on almost everything.
What was your proudest moment?
This was my first time to do my own research project. I was so excited to have the opportunity because COVID set me back. The days where I was working late in the lab were hard. Obviously, I was tired. But I was doing what I want to do, and I was where I want to be. I also felt a sense of accomplishment when I completed my poster presentation. Since I was late getting data, I feel like I also learned how to work under a time crunch.
How did you hear about the research opportunity?
I took a mycology class last spring with Professor Ben Sikes, and he told us about it.
Did the experience impact future career plans?
Yes. I want to do more research on fungi and connect it with my other interests in herpetology.
What do your parents think about you being in science?
I’m from a small town in southwest Missouri with less than 1000 people. Most people are farmers, and they don’t really think much about science. I always had an interest in it, and my parents supported me in that. If I got good grades, they would take me to the bookstore and I would pick out the biggest, thickest science book. I just loved learning. Neither of my parents graduated from college. They don’t understand what I work on, but they think it’s cool. They are very supportive of me.
One last question. How do you pronounce fungi?
I don’t know! Prof Sikes says ‘fun-ji’ (with a j sound). But other people say fun-guy. I honestly go back and forth between the two pronunciations.
View Hannah’s research poster to learn more.