A fondness for fungi

February 14, 2018
Lotus Lofgren.

Green slime, cup fungi, basidiomycetes. For Lotus Lofgren, these words are the entry to a world of delight.

“I love mycology (the study of fungi) because it bridges the micro world and the macro world in a way that’s really unique,” she says. “In what other field do you get to think about mating between three parents that could each have any of a thousand ‘sexes,’ about whole chromosome transfer, about something so intimately connected to the history of food, alcohol, disease, medicine, carbon cycling, and ecosystem functioning, and spend the day in the woods collecting samples that you can take home and grill in butter and garlic?”

For Lofgren, the realization of this interest came in the midst of a winding educational path. After growing up unschooled, she decided to get her GED at the age of 23 with aspirations of studying urban agriculture and sustainability. To explore this area, she took courses at a community college, and then transferred to the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate. One particular experience on this journey ignited her interest in the world of fungi.

As part of a mycology class, she traveled to northern Minnesota to collect mushrooms. After gathering her harvest, she joined the class at a field station as they identified the fungal species. The professor put up a laminated poster of the fungal family tree and asked the students to place their mushrooms on its branches. Suddenly, things seemed to click.

“It was such a beautiful, clear, way of understanding evolution,” she says. “The next day, I walked into my advisor’s office and told him I wanted to study fungus.”

That led Lofgren to where she is now, a Ph.D. candidate exploring fungi. Her recent work was awarded the J. L. Harley Medal from the International Mycorrhiza Society. The award is given to a graduate student for excellence in research and presentation.

“I’m extremely honored,” she says. “I’m grateful any time my mom puts up with me rambling on about fungus.”