You’re a what?
David Hibbett—Worcester, Massachusetts
What do you do?
I study fungal biology. A mycologist is someone who works with fungi, which are living organisms such as molds, yeast, and mushrooms. My research focuses on the diversity and evolution of mushroom-forming fungi.
I’m an academic mycologist, so along with doing research, I teach undergraduate and graduate students. I also engage in outreach to the public.
Is your job typical of mycologists?
Most mycologists work in academia; government research labs; or industries such as biotechnology, biofuels, and medicine. However, there are also opportunities in areas such as mushroom farming; mushroom bioproducts, such as packaging materials and leather alternatives; and foraging.
Some mycologists work almost exclusively in laboratories; others spend more time in the field. Those who specialize in plant pathology interact with crop producers. Medical mycologists may work in hospitals and coordinate with epidemiologists. Mushroom growers and other applied mycologists are immersed in the world of commerce and business. And academic mycologists, like me, work in colleges—teaching students and doing research.
A unifying aspect of all mycological careers is that they require a passion for fungal biology and a desire to share the world of fungi with the public.
Tell me why your research is important.
It’s important to study mushroom-forming fungi so that we understand their diversity and how they function. They provide food for humans and have vital roles in nature. Some mushroom-forming fungi decay wood, leaf litter, and other organic material, providing key links in the carbon cycle. Some enter into beneficial partnerships with trees, but others cause plant diseases.
Research focuses on both practical applications and basic science. For example, applied research on mushroom-forming fungi focuses on subjects such as mushroom cultivation, biofuels, and production of novel leather-like materials from fungi. Basic research on these organisms includes studies on mushroom ecology and biodiversity.
There are over 20,000 described species of mushroom-forming fungi, but many more await discovery.
How did you become interested in this career?
My interest in mycology began when I was an undergraduate majoring in botany. I took a field course on New England fungi, which opened my eyes to the world of fungi. Later, in graduate school, I decided to focus my career on mushroom-forming fungi.
What education do mycologists need?
The preparation required depends on your goals. Strain development, bioprospecting, and improvement of mushroom-growing technology are highly specialized activities that may require master’s- or Ph.D.-level training in molecular biology, engineering, and fungal taxonomy. If you want to teach and do research in traditional academic or industry settings, then you probably need a Ph.D. I have a Ph.D. in botany.
Mushroom cultivation is a form of applied microbiology. You may need a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in a field of science, such as biology, for jobs involving culturing and other laboratory methods.
However, mushroom cultivation is a labor-intensive activity that requires workers with diverse skills and training. Some of the jobs on a mushroom farm, such as harvesting and processing mushrooms, don’t require a college degree.
What do you like best about your work?
I love working with fungi and people who love fungi. I enjoy sharing what I know with students and the public. For example, public mushroom forays are lots of fun. We take people out to look for mushrooms and help them identify what they’ve found.
I also love the process of research in basic fungal biology. It’s very exciting to learn new things about fungi and then share those insights with students and colleagues.
What do you dislike?
The uncertainty of research support. Getting funding for basic research is always a challenge. Currently, about 10 percent or less of grant proposals to federal agencies for basic research can be supported. These odds are terrible and very dispiriting.
Other challenges relate to the general lack of awareness among Americans about fungi and their impact on human economies and global ecosystems.
Do you have advice for prospective mycologists?
Whatever your interests, seek opportunities to gain hands-on experience working with fungi in academic or commercial settings. Reach out to professional mycologists in academia, industry—wherever. We mycologists are a friendly and supportive bunch, and we’re eager to speak with individuals who seek careers in our discipline.
Check out professional mycological societies and associations. Join a local mushroom club, and go on a foray. And if you are, or will be, a college student, seek an institution that employs at least one mycologist. Take a hands-on, field-oriented course in mycology. Dive in. Have fun!
Patricia Tate, "Mycologist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2019.