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Fungal Jungle?: Undergrad Researcher Focuses on Mushrooms

Posted: May 4, 2015

The process of conducting scientific research may seem daunting to an undergraduate student, but it's common at Penn State. One example is junior Hunter Swisher, of State College, Pennsylvania, who was able to transform his interest in mushrooms into a funded research project this year.
Hunter Swisher's research is aimed at finding out if morel mushrooms are considered mycorrhizal fungi, which are fungi that live in a symbiotic relationship with a plant host.

Hunter Swisher's research is aimed at finding out if morel mushrooms are considered mycorrhizal fungi, which are fungi that live in a symbiotic relationship with a plant host.

Swisher, a Plant Sciences major with minors in Plant Pathology and in Mushroom Science and Technology, developed his interest in mushrooms before coming to Penn State.

"I've always had an interest in hiking and the outdoors, and when I was in high school I started collecting mushrooms as sort of a mission or reason to go hiking."

Swisher also enjoys the taste of mushrooms and grew his own garden of two of his favorite varieties --  shiitake and oyster -- during his freshman year. By his second year, he hoped to further develop his knowledge of his hobby.

"In my sophomore year, I decided to take a plant pathology class called Fungal Jungle, in which I learned about all sorts of fungi, more than just the ones you find popping up in the woods."

Swisher approached his professor with a question after class one day, and she offered him the opportunity to conduct research to answer his inquiry.

"In one week, we developed a research proposal and received a $2,000 undergraduate research award from the College of Agricultural Sciences, and I was on my way to starting my research!"

Swisher's research is aimed at finding out if morel mushrooms are considered mycorrhizal fungi, which are fungi that live in a symbiotic relationship with a plant host. His research consists of elements that are studied both in the greenhouse and in the field.

"In the greenhouse, I have been inoculating and growing trees in the hope that the relationship is formed. Another branch of my research has been to study the relationship in a natural setting, like in the forest during morel season."

Swisher currently is conducting a second trial in the greenhouse to solidify his findings. He has been thrilled with his overall experience so far.

"The highlight has been conducting research in a field I am truly passionate about. I've also met and collaborated with a wide variety of professional scientists who have taught me so much more than I've ever learned in a classroom."

Learn more about the Plant Sciences major.