Skip to main contentSkip to main navigationSkip to footer content

ESF Senior Wins Fulbright Research Award

Fungi captured the imagination — and academic interest — of Gabriel Smith when he was growing up in Illinois.

It wasn't the diversity of their species (75,000 already identified) or their essential role in ecosystem science that he found interesting. It was their inherent weirdness.

"To a certain extent, at the beginning of my interest it was an aesthetic thing. Fungi are sort of the iconic image of weirdness in a way," said Smith, who is scheduled to complete his ESF bachelor's degree in August. "You can think of the picture of the caterpillar on the mushroom smoking a hookah in 'Alice in Wonderland,' for instance. They've become sort of shorthand in popular culture for the weirdness of the world. There's something special about them."

Smith is about to take that interest to Sweden through a prestigious 2015-2016 Fulbright U.S. Student Award. He will work at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, north of Stockholm.

"I'll be looking at saprobic fungi that colonize the living roots of conifer trees," he said.

While saprobic fungi are commonly thought of as feeding on dead matter such as wood or leaf litter, Smith is interested in the varieties that colonize the roots of living trees. The fungi he will study are not pathogens but seem to act more like mutualistic mycorrhizal fungi. His research could add to the body of knowledge about how they, and the mycorrhizal interaction in general, evolved. (Most of the world's plant species are associated with mycorrhizal fungi; the fungi live in the roots and extend into the nearby soil, taking up nutrients and transporting them into the plant roots. While the plants benefit from the nutrients, the fungi benefit from the carbon that comes from the plants.)

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program of the United States. He was studying in Moon Library when he learned he had received the Fulbright award. All he could think of to do was run outside with his phone.

"It was a big surprise for me. I immediately shut down the computer and ran outside and called my family. They were very excited; no one was expecting this," he said. "It was a big surprise and I was really happy to hear it."

Smith came to ESF from his home state of Illinois after beginning his college career at another institution. He found ESF online and discovered the college offers undergraduates a rare opportunity to study mycorrhizal fungi. He took advantage of ESF's undergraduate research opportunities, working on projects and learning through his mentors, Dr. Thomas Horton of the Department of Environmental Biology, and Dr. Ruth Yanai of the Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management.

"I've always really liked fungi. As far as I'm concerned they're the most interesting things that exist on this planet," Smith said. "After learning more about their ecology, especially the fact that most plants depend on them for nutrients, it was an obvious choice for me to study them."