A Fondness for Fungi

September 07, 2017

From unschooler to internationally honored researcher, Lotus Lofgren finds fascination in fungi

Lotus Lofgren

Lotus Lofgren
Green slime, cup fungi, basidiomycetes. Most hear these words, envision the dark, damp places of the world and cringe. But for Lotus Lofgren, they are the entry point to a world of delight.

“I love mycology 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 their harvest, she joined the class at a field station as they identified the fungal species. The professor put up a laminated poster of fungal family tree, and asked the students to place their mushrooms on its branches. Suddenly, things seemed to click.

“It was that living phylogenetic tree that got me,” she says. “It was such a beautiful, clear, way of understanding evolution. 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 full time in Plant and Microbial Biology faculty member Peter Kennedy’s lab. Her recent work and presentation on the Suillus subaureus species was rewarded with a major accolade: the J. L. Harley Medal from the International Mycorrhiza Society. The award is given to a graduate student for excellence in research and presentation at their semi-annual conference.

“I’m extremely honored to be awarded the Harley Medal,” Lofgren says. “I’m grateful any time my mom puts up with me rambling on about fungus. The thought that my peers not only stick around to listen, but are actually interested in what I’m doing is extremely humbling.”  –Lance Janssen