It’s not every day you get to name a new species of fungi, but Daniel Raudabaugh (PhD Plant Biology, 2019) named two during his time as a graduate student at Illinois. Hongkongmyces snookiorum is named to honor his grandparents who let him collect on their land for his pilot study, and Coniella lustricola is Latin for “bog-loving.”
Daniel researches the composition, structure, and function of aquatic fungal communities, particularly in peatland and stream environments. This fall he will begin a unique research opportunity as one of only 20 students worldwide selected for the prestigious Schmidt Science Fellows Program - a unique postdoctoral fellowship established in 2018 by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, in partnership with the Rhodes Trust (which administers the Rhodes Scholarship Program). The Schmidt Fellowship supports students who wish to “pivot” from their doctoral field into a new field, thereby expanding their interdisciplinary skills and awareness. Awardees may use the fellowship at any university of their choice, and Daniel has chosen Duke University, where he will study ecotoxicology in the lab of Dr. Claudia Gunsch.
The Schmidt Fellowship Program aims to develop the next generation of interdisciplinary science leaders to tackle global challenges in scientific areas spanning health, the environment, clean energy, computer science, and smart materials, among others. To support them in this mission, each fellow is placed with a researcher in a complementary field (the pivot) and given the opportunity to question and learn to broaden their research impact.
While it’s possible to study individual fungi within a community to learn how they are interconnected, Daniel’s current research looks at both the entire fungal community and individual species within the ecosystems. “All organisms are interconnected in that they are not in isolation from one another - they are either competing or coexisting, so I’m interested in understanding how communities form and how individual species work together to survive,” said Daniel. His pivot will give him the tools to understand how different pollutants enter the environment as well as how they are transported and where the chemicals ultimately reside. "I want to understand how these chemicals affect the aquatic fungal community and ultimately the health of these ecosystems. Perhaps the community /species within the community can be leveraged to break anthropogenic (human-made) pollutants and assist with habitat remediation."
“My major curiosity is trying to understand why organisms live where they live, why are they there and not somewhere else - what’s the difference? Studying fungal communities from contrasting habitats provides a great opportunity to explore this question,” he said.
The Schmidt Science Fellowship operates through a very selective nomination process. Each university could submit only a limited number of nominations and, at Illinois, the Graduate College Office of External Fellowships managed that process. “The competition was fierce,” said Ken Vickery, Director of Fellowships. “Some of the most accomplished students on campus were considered, and given the stature of the Schmidt Fellowship, we knew that our students would be competing against some of the most promising young scientists in the world. I was therefore happy when three of our six nominees were invited to interview, and I was exhilarated upon learning that Daniel was our first awardee.”
Once Daniel was invited to interview, he sought the help of the Graduate College Career and Professional Development Office. “The experience was great and Mike (Firmand) provided examples of how to answer interview questions in a thoughtful manner. In addition, he was a good resource for practice setup/question/answers and provided feedback on how to improve,” Daniel said.
After the 11-month postdoc and equipped with new knowledge and experience from his Schmidt Science Fellowship, Daniel hopes to pursue a career as a professor. He worked as a TA for five different courses while a graduate student at Illinois. “I’ve been going to school long enough that I have a little bit of knowledge,” he said. “It’s nice to pass that on and try to get undergrads interested in science and go further in science - not just go through the classes but to get them really interested in research and using their research interests to address social causes as well.”
And as for the immediate future? Daniel’s excited to explore a new part of the world through his fellowship. “There’s a place in the region, the Great Dismal Swamp, that just sounds like a great place to go collecting,” he said. “It says come and explore me!”
His enthusiasm for gathering fungi is contagious and fits his philosophy for pursing a PhD. “When it’s busy and it’s super stressful, remember that the whole point of this thing - of the PhD - is that you are supposed to love what you are doing. So remember why you loved it, and remember why you still love it,” he said.
For information about applying to the Schmidt Science Fellowship Program, see the Graduate College Fellowship Finder.
Caitlin Brooks is a PhD student in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in liminal leisure spaces and her dissertation explores marriage practices at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.