Rabern Simmons Performs Postdoctoral Research on Pathogenic Fungi
According to Rabern Simmons, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maine, a person’s umwelt, meaning overall perception of their surroundings, is reliant on what you can sense and experience. So think to yourself; how many types of fungi can you name? There is estimated to be 5.1 million species of fungi, many of which are unidentified, and only one third of them are expected to produce mushrooms with which we are familiar. So where are the rest of them hiding? They’re microscopic. The effects fungi have on our environment is immense and often goes unseen until researchers, such as Simmons, begin digging for evidence of their influence. Simmons’ postdoctoral research aims to unravel the mysteries of pathogenic fungi to better understand their evolutionary history and effect on our environment.
On his doctorate graduation day in 2012, Dr. Ellie Groden, Director of the School of Biology & Ecology, offered him a postdoctoral position in her lab to analyze and name a pathogenic fungus, which is in the genus Hirsutella, affecting invasive fire ants on Mount Desert Island. This fall, Simmon received a two year federal grant of $128,321 to continue his research on Hirsutella fungi, titled Systematics of Hirsutella, a Fungal Genus of Potential Insect Biocontrol Agents, and Teaching a Systematic Approach to Identify Plant Pests. In early November, Simmons traveled to USDA Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland to talk with researchers working on the systematics of similar fungi. He received several samples of different Hirsutella species from this trip and has been isolating their DNA for phylogenetic analyses. Simmons had been planning a trip to the USDA Agricultural Research Service Collection of Entomopathogenic Fungal Cultures in Ithaca, New York to collaborate with another mycologist, but due to the government shut down at the beginning of October, his plans were canceled. He still hopes to visit this facility in order to expand his knowledge on culturing and examining different species of Fungi. Simmons will also use his findings on Hirsutella species, as well as some plant-based methods, to construct an inquiry-based plant pathology course with the help of Drs. Seanna Annis and Mary Tyler.
Simmons’ interest in mycology sprouted during his undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, when he began working with a botany professor interested in slime molds and their fungal pathogens. His interests continued to grow when he arrived at the University of Maine and began his research with an associate research professor, Dr. Joyce Longcore. Dr. Longcore studies chytridomycete systematics and a chytrid pathogen of amphibians that has been correlated with worldwide amphibian population declines. Dr. Longcore was the first to isolate the chytrid pathogen Bd, or Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, in culture in 1997. In 2008, she was recognized as a distinguished mycologist for her dedication to the field. She has spent the last 30 years isolating different cultures of chytrid fungi and educating others on her findings, and Simmons drew upon Dr. Longcore’s culture collection and experience with these fungi to describe several new taxonomic ranks during his masters and doctoral research programs.
“It’s not just this really weird group of fungi that we are studying just for the sake of science, it’s actually come about now that Joyce’s particular skill set is becoming extremely useful the more we find these organisms and understand their biology…The fact that they are completely understudied is quite sad.”
According to Simmons, one graduate course that specifically prepared him for the transition to working in a University setting and interacting with other institutions in the field was Drs. Mike Kinnison and Becky Holberton’s Professionalism in Biology. “I delight in writing and reevaluating it. Writing was never a focus of my undergraduate degree, but I feel like since starting my graduate program that it has been my one skill-set that has been useful no matter what… My experiences both in writing and critiquing other people’s work have really honed my skills for writing to a scientific audience,” said Rabern.