Congratulations to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign PhD student Jason M. Karakehian, who was awarded the Society of Herbarium Curators 2021 student research award!
This sculptor turned scientist studies fungal systematics and received the award for his proposal entitled, “Toward a revision of Propolis (Fungi) and allied genera: morphological studies of type and authentic specimens in the Farlow Herbarium, Harvard University.” Jason is advised by Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) mycologist Andrew Miller.
Jason recently answered some questions about his path from art to science, his research interests, and his experiences as a graduate student.
When did you first become interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I grew up in Massachusetts and as a child I was always interested in biology and art. I would often stay after school to use the microscopes and look at samples of local pond water that I made. Making art seemed to come easier though, and my art teachers were more present in my life so I went down that road. Later as a working sculptor in Boston I started looking at picture books of cephalopods, fungi, and slime molds for inspiration for my outdoor sculptures—I was attracted to their forms and colors.
What inspired you to shift your career from art to science?
I started becoming more interested in the organisms and less and less interested in making sculpture. Things were not going well for my art career, and I was floundering and unhappy. I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and took an extension class on fungi, then joined the Boston Mycological Club. I began to go out into the woods more and more, then bought a microscope and lots of books on identifying different types of fungi. I also found mentorship at the Farlow Herbarium of Harvard University and began to work more intensively at collecting, studying, and learning about the systematics and biology of fungi. I ultimately sold off all my sculptures, sold my tools, and gave up my art studio space to dedicate all of my spare time to mycology. I worked in a wood shop making high-end picture frames for galleries and museums. The owner was very supportive and I could work extra hours to have Fridays off to visit the Farlow.
Who or what drew you to study fungal systematics?
My mentors and the botany librarians at Harvard were so welcoming and happy to help me with whatever questions I had. Over time I gained some privileges to use the fungarium collections, library, and culture labs, so I spent a lot of time there. I love the complexity of fungal life cycles, their diversity, the beauty of their forms and colors, and the challenge they can be to identify. My introduction to mycology was entirely through a taxonomic window. I ultimately got to be first author on a paper on the taxonomy of really cool fungus called Angelina rufescens. I had been daydreaming about what it would be like to publish a scientific paper and I got it done—so from then on I was hooked on taxonomic research.
Have you found any commonalities between art and science—two fields people often perceive as vastly different?
From my experience these are not too different from each other. Both science and art provide ways for people to feel connected to something larger than our mundane daily lives. So science and art are open-ended pursuits that can give us insights into our spiritual lives, or our culture, or the natural world. Science and art challenge us to think creatively and laterally and to solve problems toward illuminating something about our experiences or how the natural world operates, and we communicate this to each other and future generations. As a former sculptor, I was used to handling equipment and following procedures to get something built. Now, in the lab, I have to do the same types of things to get data. In both ways, I'm working toward understanding and articulating something. Hopefully the work is good and has some truth in it.
Tell us a little about your graduate research. What work are you most proud of?
I'm really proud of the massive collection of specimens in this order of fungi that I want to study for my dissertation. I spent years corresponding with international mycologists both amateur and professional to do this, as well as my own collecting in eastern North America. I'm looking forward to diving deep into the systematics and taxonomy of this cool group of fungi. I'm also working on finishing identifications of a bunch of specimens of fungi from Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique that some colleagues and I made back in 2016. Hopefully we'll publish a checklist and all of our DNA sequence data by the end of the summer.
What is the best part about attending the U of I and working with INHS?
There are many great things. I have an Illinois Distinguished Fellowship (IDF) so financially my wife and I are supported, and I got an ARCS scholar award so that helps even more, as well as providing some research money. My advisor is truly interested in my progress and is an active part of my daily life here, so I feel well-supported in that way too. I feel that INHS is a natural home for me because natural history is the focus of the organization. There is the strong fieldwork and taxonomy connection.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your graduate school career?
Negative self-talk is the biggest challenge. Imposter syndrome stuff. Also, one of the biggest challenges is finding some time to just spend doing the things that made me fall in love with mycology in the first place—getting out into the field and collecting, studying collections, working with fungarium collections, learning while doing, and writing. The class work and other graduate student obligations are important and help me to grow as a student researcher, but I don't think that I learn best in the classroom structure, and I worry about losing that connection because there is some other thing that always seems to have priority to get done. So when I do snatch a little time to do work that recharges me, there is always the nagging sense that I should be doing something else.
What do you wish more people understood about science or fungal systematics?
Fungal systematists need to be supported by their mycological peers. There seems to be a lot of poorly characterized new species, as well as a lot of confusion being generated by researchers who want to generate higher level taxonomies because this work is in vogue, but they don't know the organisms well for their conclusions to make any sense. There is the perennial problem of gene sequences of fungi coming from misidentified specimens in GenBank. There is an active community of citizen scientists who are out there looking at fungi, collecting them, and studying them at home, but sometimes there is no interaction with institutional fungaria so these collections don't get deposited. All this to say that well-trained fungal systematists operate to curate information on fungal taxa, promote public engagement, and produce reliable work that ecologists and researchers in other sub-disciplines in mycology can use in their research.
What career are you hoping to pursue after you graduate?
I'd like to do a postdoc, and I'm interested in teaching and research. I'd like to find some position where I can continue to do research in fungal systematics, as well as public outreach and even collections management.
What advice would you give to future science graduate students?
Try to find something that is exciting, some group of organisms or system that is your own and that you can dive deep into and come to love. I think that love of a subject can get you far, and keep you motivated when times get tough. I feel fortunate that I had a group of fungi that I love to study before I arrived at the U of I and that I have the opportunity to continue to work on them.