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Fabulous Fungi

Just below the surface of our world lies the vast, unexplored world of fungi. There are an estimated 5.1 million species of fungi weaved into the soil, water and other living organisms that inhabit our planet. Of those five million species, we’ve identified just over 70,000.

Despite being just beneath (and sometimes on) our fingertips, the fungal world remains more mysterious than the ocean. However, one small, but growing group of scientists is looking to change that. Collecting, identifying and researching, mycologists stand on the frontier of the unique, unexplored world of fungi, but so far, universities have done a terrible job of facilitating that science.

What is Mycology?

Mycology is the study of fungi, their relationships to each other and other organisms and their biological and chemical composition. Those fungi include mycelium, the mass of interwoven hyphae that forms the underlying structure of the fungus, like the root systems of plants. More commonly thought of as representatives of the fungal world are mushrooms, which are simply the meaty, fruiting bodies of the fungus.

To learn more about mycology, I spoke with the University of Utah’s only resident mycologist, [and associate professor of the School of Biological Sciences] Bryn Dentinger. As a field of study, mycology remains far younger than almost every other science. Dentinger noted that “it wasn’t until the 1970s that fungi even got their own kingdom. We’re so far behind other groups of organisms in terms of their baseline documentation that one of our main activities is still just getting out and documenting what’s out in the world.”

There are millions of unidentified fungi, and very few mycologists to find them. Still, even with the very limited knowledge of fungi that we have, some people, who Dentinger calls “mycoevangelists” think that fungi have the potential to solve many of our biggest problems.

Can Fungi Save the World?

Well, maybe.

While further research is necessary to understand whether mushrooms can be used to treat mental and physical health conditions, fungi are already helping us combat the effects of the climate crisis. Dentinger is “excited about some of the products that are being promoted, like the company Ecovative, that’s producing Styrofoam alternatives.”

Ecovative’s line of mycelium products also includes environmentally friendly skincare productsgloves, footwear, backpacks and plant-based meat. With just Ecovative’s products, mycelium already offers alternatives to single-use plastics, fast fashion and animal agriculture, some of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. Luckily, some of those products are catching on.

Dell famously piloted mycelium packaging back in 2011. Earlier this year, Adidas released a concept shoe made of mycelium-based leather. Hopefully, they’ll continue to grow in popularity as they become more economically viable, and businesses are held to higher environmental standards.

Fungi have the potential to help us mitigate climate change, but they also will help us become more resilient to it. After the 2019 wildfires in California, the Fire Remediation Action Coalition used oyster mushrooms to divert dangerous runoff from sensitive waterways. Wildfires in the west will only worsen, but we can avoid some of their most dangerous effects with fungi.

Worsening wildfire seasons in Utah are, predominantly, due to the longer, drier summers. Drier seasons bring longer droughts, straining the desert’s limited water supply. Currently, the vast majority of Utah’s water is used for agriculture. Mushrooms, which can grow almost anywhere, use far less water than animal agriculture, especially when they’re grown indoors.

If we introduce more locally grown mushrooms in our diets, our food systems will be more resilient to drought and extreme weather events.

Mycology in Academia

Despite all this important work being done by mycologists, Dentinger finds that, at universities, “we often have to pretend to be something else. So, we masquerade ourselves as ecologists, or molecular biologists or geneticists, but really we study fungi.”

Mycologists have a difficult time collaborating with others to go out and identify organisms, especially if they are the sole professional in their department. And, because so many other fields of study have moved on “from having to document their organisms, there’s virtually no funding for that kind of research.”

With all these structural disadvantages to conducting mycological research, we’re at risk of letting the field of mycology fall even further behind. More than just neglected, Dentinger has found that mycologists often face active hostility towards their discipline. Other scientists “look at us and they’re like, ‘What are you doing? It’s not even science.’ I’ve been charged with that.”

Bryn Dentinger, far right, with his team in the field. Top photo: Curator Bryn Dentinger’s daughter Iona (6 yrs) holding a large (1 lb, 14 oz.) porcini mushroom collected high in the Uinta Mountains in late July, 2021. ©Bryn Dentinger

Still, Dentinger has forged ahead and has started teaching the first mycology class ever offered at the U. “It’s a 5000-level course, but I would say it functions as an Intro to Mycology course because it has to.” Even seniors studying biology at the U have functionally no understanding of fungi. Without students that have a firm grasp of mycology, and no other mycologists working at the U, there’s nobody at the U for Dentinger to even just “go have a conversation with.”

In this current form of mycology in academia, mycologists are isolated, unable to get funding and misunderstood by other scientists at the university. Dentinger finds it “hard to be the only one here,” which makes sense because scientific progress relies so heavily on collaboration. With more mycologists on staff, they would be able to achieve more than the sum of their individual contributions.

Like the objects of their study, mycologists are misunderstood and hard to find. Yet, the organisms they’ve dedicated their lives to have the potential to be an integral part of combating climate change and making us more climate-resilient.

Rather than continue to neglect such an important field, the U should actively look to become a leader in mycology. Dentinger lamented that he would “love to see a center for mycology at a university, but [it] just doesn’t exist. It never has.” Well, maybe it’s about time that it does.

By Will Shadley

This article first appeared in the Utah Daily Chronicle. You can read about another celebrated fungi expert, SBS alumna HBS’94 Kathleen Treseder,  here

Project Overview

At A Glance


South elevation of the proposed Interdisciplinary Science Center

West elevation of the proposed Interdisciplinary Science Center

Project Stats

  • 91% Instruction and Research Space
  • 9% Faculty and Staff Offices
  • Remodeled Space:  40,729 SF
  • New Space:  100,000 SF
  • 56% increase in undergraduate labs
  • Modern experiential teaching space
  • Reduced bottlenecks in high-demand courses

Physics and Astronomy

  • Faculty: 35
  • Undergraduate Majors: 187
  • Graduate Students: 83
  • Students Taught: 4,499

Atmospheric Science

  • Faculty: 11
  • Undergraduate Majors: 32
  • Graduate Students: 34
  • Students Taught: 564
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2021 National Science Foundation Funding

2021 National Science Foundation - broader impacts


College of Science faculty always strive to ensure that their research positively impacts our community and the greater society. There is perhaps no better exemplar of how College of Science faculty have incorporated broader community impacts in their research than Nalini NadkarniEmeritus Professor in the School of Biological Sciences. In a research program that has been funded by the National Science Foundation, she has focused on unique public engagement opportunities that bring science and scientists to correctional institutions, museums, and marginalized communities, among others.

The National Science Foundation was established in 1950 as an independent federal agency to "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..." by supporting research programs that are transformative scientifically, and impact society broadly. A key goal of these has been to promote activities that increase participation, particularly among women, minorities, and others underrepresented in science and technology.  Faculty in the College have been very successful in leveraging the resources available to them at the University of Utah towards NSF grants that seek to transform their fields and positively impact Utah.  A selection of the most recent NSF grants and their broader impacts are highlighted here.


William Anderegg (Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences) was awarded an NSF CAREER award in 2021 to study the consequences of climate change.  Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and more severe droughts in many regions of the globe including the western United States. While important strides have been made in understanding how forests respond to individual droughts, the long-term response to multiple drought events is unclear. Thus, the response of forests to multiple climate extremes like severe drought is unknown but critical for predicting future forest health and resilience in a changing climate.  His scientific research will combine greenhouse experiments, field measurements of mature forests, long-term forest plots, and remote-sensing data to quantify how trees and forests respond to multiple droughts. The broader impact of this research is to enable the development of sustainable and impactful training and education of undergraduates based around community-engaged learning projects. Furthermore, these education and training activities will aim to broaden participation in undergraduate and graduate education via targeted outreach in the Salt Lake and University of Utah communities.  


Ramón Barthelemy (Assistant Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy) received NSF funding in 2021 for his work on investigating how women and gender and sexual minorities (GSM) construct and navigate their professional networks to support their post Ph.D. physics careers.  In recent years it has become clear that the traditional models, whereby a scientist is mentored by a handful of individuals, are generally not ideal for nurturing most scientists, and particularly, GSM scientists. Mentoring networks that include a diverse group of individuals is likely to be more effective because it provides a holistic approach. The broader impact of this research is that these studies will provide invaluable insights into mentoring models that support GSM scientists to lead to greater inclusivity, diversity, and equity in STEM.  A new course focused on Queer Theory in Physics Education will provide a forum for students to engage with these topics.

 


Sophie Caron (Assistant Professor, School of Biological Sciences) was awarded a NSF CAREER award in 2021. Her goal is to raise awareness of the common fruit fly, Drosophila, as a model system in biology. Despite the substantial federal investment in Drosophila research, the public is not aware of the benefits of this humble, rather uncharismatic animal with a liking for our kitchen sinks, as a powerful model for studying human health and disease. As part of the broader impact of her research, Dr. Caron will create an exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah, tentatively entitled “The Secret Lives of Flies.” This exhibit will highlight the special relationship between humans and Drosophila  by highlighting how it evolved into a human commensal, and how it is being used to advance our understanding of biology, in particular genetics, developmental biology, and neuroscience.

 


Bryn Dentinger (Curator of Mycology, Natural History Museum of Utah; Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences) received NSF funding in 2021 for “Resolving the phylogeny and uncovering drivers of speciation in the evolutionary radiation of porcini mushrooms (Boletaceae).” The process by which new species are created is central to the question of how life evolves and understanding it provides both an explanation for our existence and enables better predictive power to anticipate how life will respond to future change. This predictability allows researchers to better conserve and protect biodiversity, helping society achieve a sustainable future. The broader impact efforts supported by this grant will include outreach activities that address educational inequalities by engaging scientifically underserved groups in scientific mentorships of middle school students, a public engagement training program for project scientists, educational workshops for incarcerated adults and youth, and dissemination of the project’s science in diverse media in multiple languages.


Priyam Patel (Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics) was awarded an NSF CAREER award in 2021. Her research project focuses on questions in geometry and topology, both of which are concerned with studying the shapes of objects or spaces. The primary goal of her research projects is to significantly deepen our understanding of infinite-type surfaces, which are ubiquitous in topology, geometry, and dynamics, and have connections to some farther away fields like descriptive set theory. The broader impact activities of the grant include training and mentoring women in math, expanding educational outreach, and highlighting the accomplishments of individuals from historically marginalized groups in STEM.  She plans to organize a research training and professional development workshop for women of color in years 1-3 of graduate school.  This is a critical stage in graduate training where support is often lacking for women of color at their home institutions. In addition, she is organizing a speaker series at the University of Utah to highlight the achievements of prominent Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other individuals from marginalized groups in STEM.


Michael Vershinin (Assistant Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy) received funding for “Biomechanics study of SARS-CoV-2 virus-like particles.” Dr. Vershinin’s research on SARS-CoV-2 virus shows that its now-infamous spike protein can shed and re-insert back into the viral envelope. This phenomenon is very relevant for disease progression, however this is a novel behavior not documented among other similar viruses. The goal is to understand the mechanism of spike protein shedding/reinsertion and to help build a collaborative community to study the SARS-CoV-2 viruses at the single-particle level.


Luisa Whittaker-Brooks (Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry) received NSF funding for her work on organic photovoltaic (OPV) technology, which is extensively used in solar panels. This research has the potential for significant economic impact due to unique features such as flexibility, low weight, and short energy payback time (i.e. the time needed to produce the energy that was required for its production). To achieve greater commercial application, OPVs need to overcome technology challenges in efficiency, stability, durability, and safe and sustainable production. This project will investigate the processes responsible for the limited lifetime and efficiency of OPVs under operating conditions. As part of the broader impact activities of her program, she will engage the Salt Lake City community in energy and organic electronic topics through an innovative education and outreach effort involving high school teachers. These will include professional mentoring and short research activities in STEM to economically- disadvantaged young women in along the Wasatch Front through the Young & WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) outreach effort. 


The College of Science is grateful to the support of the National Science Foundation for the deliberate efforts to pair scientific and broader impact activities to community change.  We applaud the activities of our faculty that will enrich Utah communities.  We look forward to sharing more of the community-engaged scientific activities of our faculty in future articles.

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Tour the College of Science

Get a sneak peek of campus before the fall semester!

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Unique housing opportunities for science students.

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Scholarships, Grants & Financial Aid

Scholarships for students at the College of Science.

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Science Research Initiative

Placing first-year students in real science research.

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Science Friday

High school seniors, juniors and transfer students are invited to visit campus!

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Connect with the vast opportunities that science and mathematics can unlock.

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Individuals from all dimensions of diversity who embody excellence, leadership and equity.

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Staff: Crystal Cory

Crystal Cory


Career coaching is a little bit of hand-holding and a whole lot of at-your-fingertips resources. A little bit of asking the right questions of your client (and asking them at the right time) and the uncanny ability to help someone see how cool they already are.

It’s a lot about helping someone find an occupational “fit,” not so that they can rest on their laurels in a static world where everything is customized, but as a stop on the continuum of work that is ever-moving and ever-expanding.

Crystal Cory, MA, is that kind of person, and she knows of what she speaks. She was originally an engineering student at Purdue University where she was studying biochemistry before a course in organic chemistry revealed rather awkwardly that her path led in a different direction than she first thought it would.

That she has a STEM  background, however, has come to the fore at the University of Utah, following her own circuitous route landing her in the U’s Career & Professional Development Center (CPDC). She is SBS’s go-to-professional for bridging your education with the vagaries of the work life.

And the vagaries are many.

An Indiana native, Cory had never been to Utah until she landed her job in the Career Office located on the third floor of the Student Services Building (SSB). A career coach is a professional who guides you during a job search or a career transition, or helps you improve and advance in your current position. They analyze your work and academic situation and learn what your professional goals are. They then work with students to come up with a plan to help you achieve your targets. Considering the holistic reality of job fulfillment, however, you might opt to call an outing this fluid “planned happenstance” rather than career planning.

Central to this work is excavating for the client the skills they’ve already obtained, either through school or work, and translate them to a new job opportunity. Have you been working at Burger King to get yourself through college? No problem. You’ve got the skills to enter a new environment whether you know it or not.

Technical knowledge and experience are found in on-the-job settings where training someone how to change out the oil in the fryer is going to happen. But other skill sets–whether they be knowing how to communicate with a customer or a fellow employee or how to de-escalate a situation embedded in conflict–are likely either already developed in you or soon can be.

Perhaps your skill is simply fierce tenacity—hanging in there, and getting back up in the ring after getting knocked about. Cory’s message: don’t underestimate your skills. And don’t underestimate yourself.

“When a student arrives in my office or calls me on the phone, they don’t need to have prepared anything,” says Cory. “This is a no judgment zone. My time’s exclusively for you. The agenda is set by the student.”

But what if the agenda is more like a cry from the heart, as in, “I have no idea what I’m doing”? That’s okay, too. And Cory will tell you that to your face.

She might ask you to start not with the “what?” but “the why?” The objective is to become more confident in taking your next step toward a gratifying career. Just one step at a time. You’re not here to dismantle the seemingly insurmountable wall of job and career. “That wall looks huge because it is, even when you’re half way up it.”

She is also quick to remind one that expecting to have “a single career your whole life isn’t realistic.” Most people make many job changes during the course of their life and you may be surprised to learn that folks aren’t just changing jobs–they’re changing careers: between five and seven times on average.

Asking yourself the why might look like this:

“Why am I drawn to a lab environment? Is it the excitement of unanswered questions? Is it the mice? The lab coat? Or, do I really do well in a highly collaborative environment where people feed off of one another’s ideas? Why do I identify with plants over animals in my studies? Why do I get jazzed when people crack an organic chemistry textbook?”

This particular career coach may not understand getting jazzed about carbon-containing compounds, but she can help you home in that enthusiasm towards careers that honor your excitement, regardless of what object that excitement has attached to.

“It has helped,” she says of her biology clients, “that I lived in that [STEM] world for a hot minute.” Again, there’s no judgement here, just a continuing conversation with someone who knows the right questions to ask of you.

And of course, you know—only you know—the right answers.

Anthropologist Joseph Campbell is credited with the phrase, “follow your bliss,” and if you talk to Cory very long her bliss comes roaring forth like a lion—or a bear.  She is an avid participant each year in Fat Bear Week, a single elimination tournament in which fans view bears in the wild on webcams and vote for which is fattest as the critters list toward hibernation.

The point isn’t that Cory wants to study bears; it’s that her bliss for them speaks to a larger area of interest which is conservation. But here’s the takeaway: enthusiasm for conservation (including over-indulgent bears eating salmon) doesn’t mean an end game of one job or one career. It can mean a job in policy, in fieldwork or in education… or even in career coaching. There’s no one right answer.

Cory’s bliss clearly extends from bears to helping others figure out their own bliss, their skill set and their next steps towards a gratifying career. And she is available for free at the University of Utah where she works mostly with science and STEM students (excluding engineering) and veterans.

You can expect to be asked to sign in to Handshake, the one-stop shop platform for career development where, at the U, no less than 15,500 high-quality jobs have been approved for your consideration using hand-picked criteria. In addition to job openings, Handshake provides events and other resources. (You can set up an appointment with Crystal Cory here.)

It’s been a long journey in some ways from flat Indiana where, as Cory says, “You can watch your dog run away for three days,” to mountainous Utah. But in other ways it’s been short but decidedly exhilarating for her. She loves meeting with students either in person or virtually. For those who might be a bit busy for an appointment, the CPDC also has a Career Studio in SSB 350 for drop in help on career-related topics.

Following her undergraduate degree at Purdue she earned her Master’s in Student Affairs in Higher Education and since then has found her home in Salt Lake City where she can help you draft (or re-draft) a resume, find an internship, or host you at a meet-and-greet with employers looking to hire. She can also help you apply to graduate school if you want to pursue another degree. In short, she can help with general job searching, interviewing, salary negotiation . . . basically anything related to careers.

And if you’re a graduate student, Cory can direct you to a coach who specializes in the post-graduate-student blues. As with undergraduates, it’s never too late to ask “Why?”

Let Crystal Cory help you.

By David Pace

Visit Crystal and her coach colleagues at the UofU’s Career and Professional Development Website here. Watch a video on how Handshake works here.

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David T. Chuljian

Describing himself as one of the world’s few “quantum dentists,” David T. Chuljian, PhD’84 in Chemistry, has an unusual perspective on dental decay rates, and particle-hole interactions.

Chuljian grew up in Port Townsend, Washington, until age 14. His father, G. T. “Chuck” Chuljian, had settled there in 1947 and opened a dental practice near the Keystone Ferry Terminal.

“Port Townsend was a very sleepy town in the 1960s. During summer, our day would be chores in the morning, then off on our bicycles and returning for dinner after spending the day with friends,” says Chuljian.

“We owned a small beach cabin on Discovery Bay, so many of our bike rides ended there to go fishing, swimming, or beach walking. Grade school was mostly at a one-room private school, with teachers of varying quality.”

“I had a couple of good teachers in elementary school, one of which was extremely varied in his knowledge and interests and he taught us a wild mix of things for science class – how airplanes work, astronomy, ecology, you name it. Math and science were fun for me after that,” says Chuljian.

“Like many dentists, my dad hoped at least one of us would go into dentistry, and it was assumed that all five of us kids would go on to college,” says Chuljian.

“But the local high school was not very academic – kids in town expected to work at the paper mill after graduation – so my parents sent us to a church-run high school, Auburn Academy, near Tacoma.”

After high school, Chuljian enrolled in Walla Walla College, a private Adventist school in College Place, Washington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1978. During his senior year at Walla Walla he applied to medical school and to various graduate schools around the country.

“At the time, the chairman of our chem department, Barton Rippon, was collaborating with some folks doing bioengineering type stuff, and he encouraged me to apply at Utah,” says Chuljian.

Remarkably, Chuljian did not actually apply to the chemistry department for graduate school.

“In fact, I applied to Utah’s bioengineering program. But my application packet somehow wound up at the chemistry department, where Jack Simons saw it before forwarding it to bioengineering,” says Chuljian.

“Jack then called me and asked if I was interested in interviewing in Chemistry as well as Bioengineering, and said they’d pay for my plane ticket. This seemed like a great deal, so I wound up doing both interviews on the same trip,” says Chuljian.

“As it turned out, Jack’s theoretical chemistry work was extremely interesting, close to physics which I also enjoyed. So, in the end, I went with the chemistry department.” Jack Simons later served as Chuljian’s research advisor.

However, after two years of graduate school, Chuljian’s research wasn’t progressing as he wanted and tenure-track jobs around the country were extremely limited in number.

“I’m reasonably intelligent, but not Einstein, and I could tell I wasn’t really cut out for an academic position in theoretical chemistry,” says Chuljian.

So, in 1980, he applied to dental school at the University of Washington in Seattle and started that program in fall semester 1981.

“Since I already had more than three years towards my chemistry doctorate, I worked on both degrees in parallel, coming back to Utah during summers and Christmas vacations, and working remotely, mostly finishing up papers. Of course, this was all pre-Internet so there were some real challenges.”

“I remember most of my Utah research group: Ajit Banerjee, Deb Mukherjee, Judy Ozment, Gina Frey, Jim Jenkins, Ron Shephard, Rick Kendall, and Hugh Jenkins. I haven’t seen most of them since graduating, although in 2005 Jack had a reunion in Park City and I saw several of them there,” says Chuljian.

Chuljian took a sabbatical during his senior year in dental school to finish up and defend his doctorate thesis in December 1984, then returned to Washington and finished up his clinical requirements and dental licensing exam in August 1985.

That same year, Chuljian moved back to Port Townsend and began working with his father as an associate in the dental practice. He later purchased the office in 1987 and his father retired in 1990.

Chuljian with one of many parrots he has rescued

“It was a standard small-town practice, doing everything including orthodontics and surgery since no specialists were available nearby. When I retired in 2017, I sold the practice which represented 70 years of family-owned dentistry, the oldest business in town I think,” says Chuljian.

Chuljian stays busy with a range of activities and interests, including forestry, flying, and rescue care of birds, in particular parrots. Over the years, Chuljian has rescued and cared for two African Grays, a couple of Amazons, several conures, and three Pionus species of parrots.

Today, Chuljian still resides in Port Townsend, which is no longer a sleepy bywater but has a vibrant arts and boating community. His typical day might include several hours working in his forest tracts, irrigating newly planted trees or removing invasive species, or milling lumber for the local animal shelter’s building projects. Or it could be a 10-hour day drilling and filling at the local public health dental clinic. He enjoys mountain biking, but when he qualified for Medicare he upgraded to an eBike!