Laura Bogar is from Seattle, Washington. She received a Bachelor of Arts, Biology from Lewis & Clark College, located in Portland, OR in 2012. She currently resides in San Francisco and is working toward her PhD with Kabir Peay at Stanford. Laura thesis research focuses on how ectomycorrhizal plants and fungi choose their symbiotic partners, and the function of the mutualism. She uses stable isotope enrichment to track carbon and nitrogen exchange between ectomycorrhizal plants and fungi, and will be sequencing RNA to find out how a generalist fungus uses its genome to communicate with many different host plants. Laura’s work is funded by NSF through the GRFP and DDIG programs, with substantial support also from Stanford’s Center for Computational, Evolutionary, and Human Genomics. She also received a scholarship from the Mycological Society of San Francisco, and received a departmental “excellence in teaching” recognition last year.
How did you become a mycologist?
I used to think that mycology was a total accident for me. I was always enthusiastic about learning plant names, but – fungi? Recently, though, I found a photo of myself at the age of fourteen, crouched over a slime mold with a bulky digital camera, trying to get a good shot. I also remember an early enthusiasm for the parasitic orchids of the Pacific Northwest, especially the candy-stick. Something about the idea of plants stealing sugar really appealed to me. It’s possible I’ve always been into this stuff. In college, I led a lot of outdoor trips, mostly focused around plant identification and natural history. Some of these trips, at the right time of year, were mushroom forays. I spent a lot of time with David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified, but mycology still felt mostly like a hobby to me until I started getting involved with research in Peter Kennedy’s lab.
If I’m remembering correctly, I wanted to work in Peter’s lab because I wanted to study plants in some capacity, and his research was the closest I could get at our small college. Little did I know that I was about to fall in love with the fungi! All it took was a few minutes at the microscope for me to be hooked. Every community ecologist has a similar story – the diversity! so lovely! so inexplicable! – and for me, this moment came while staring at ectomycorrhizal alder roots. How could all of this have existed right under my feet, invisible to me until that moment? I knew I’d have to look into this a little more.
Flash forward six or seven years, and I’m still enjoying my time admiring ectomycorrhizal roots under the microscope. Going mushroom collecting with big groups of serious mycologists has improved my mushroom identification skills enormously, and I’m very grateful to have been able to take Tom Bruns and John Taylor’s Fungal Biology class at Berkeley as an “exchange student” from a few miles south. I look forward to continuing to improve my mycology skills during my PhD and beyond!
Who is your mycology role model?
Oh man, this is tough! I don’t think I can pick a particular mycology role model. Our whole field is so rich with brilliant, hardworking, remarkably patient people who are a delight to encounter at meetings. I am inspired by the fact that there are so many of us who are willing to devote years of our lives to the study of minute, slimy organisms that most people never think about at all.
Naturally, though, this question inspired me to Google around a little and learn more about our mycological forbearers. What a fascinating set of people! In particular, as a woman in mycology, I was fascinated to read about Mary Banning (1822-1903). (The Wikipedia article is fairly entertaining if you have a few minutes!) Although she received little formal education and spent most of her adult life caring for her ill mother and sister, she managed to learn quite a bit about fungi. Tragically, she spent twenty years working on a manuscript, sent it to her mentor – and he stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it! No one knew about this thing for nearly a century. (How sad would it be if that happened to your dissertation?) It seems likely that this “frog-stool lady” was a little eccentric – aren’t we all? – but I really admire her persistent dedication to mycology. As a frog-stool lady myself, I feel so lucky to have a desk, a stipend, and the freedom to do this work professionally. I look forward to seeing what great characters mycology attracts in the future!
What is your favorite mushroom, and what do you like about it?
To eat: Chanterelles. I love the fact that their color makes them easier to spot than other mushrooms, and if you get lucky, you can find enough for a feast. Their unique flavor goes with everything. And they’re so graceful, and so often uninfested by maggots!
Choosing a favorite non-culinary mushroom feels wrong, though. They’re all so beautiful and full of surprises! I love the smell of the Russian leather waxcap (Cuphophyllus russocoriaceus?) the slime and color of all those purple Cortinarius species that show up in the winter, and of course I love my cryptic little study organism, Thelephora terrestris, because it can associate with nearly any plant that I present it with.
What is your favorite thing about fungi?
Wow! So many things to love about fungi. I think my favorite mystery about the fungi is the frequency with which they converge on shared lifestyles. Whether we’re talking about fruiting body morphology or symbiotic capabilities, fungi seem to have reinvented their favorite ways of existing over and over. I hope we can someday figure out why this is. I think this kind of mystery underscores why fungi are so fascinating!
Do you have any funny or interesting stories about field work?
I should really be collecting these, shouldn’t I? Most of my thesis research happens in the lab, so I’m afraid I don’t get to do too much field work these days. When I do get out into the field, I’m usually on my hands and knees, crawling through the undergrowth on the hunt for Thelephora terrestris. (Have you ever looked for that fungus? It is awfully subtle.)
What do you like to do in your free time? What are your hobbies?
When I’m not doing science, I love to go running on campus, walking around San Francisco, and hiking in the woods. I also enjoy playing board games, reading novels, learning new sports, and watching half-hour comedies on Netflix.