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From Boston to Austin: One Graduate Student’s Experience at MSA-APS 2013

Sep 30

Written by: SuperUser Account
9/30/2013 11:54 AM 

This summer a number of peregrine mycologists gathered at the MSA-APS Joint Meeting in Austin, Texas. The local weather was more than warm - traveling outside was like walking through an overheated, humid incubator full of thermophilic Candida. But once inside the conference center, the air conditioned halls lichened to a giant walk-in fridge, creating a chilled and pleasant environment for communicating all things Mycology.

It was my first time attending MSA, and from what I’ve been told, the joint conference was much larger than typical MSA meetings. It was impossible to attend everything of interest, such that I wished I was more fungal in nature, capable of asexual reproduction via breaking, becoming several smaller individuals and dispersing to more talks simultaneously. The following are highlights of some of the symposia and events I was able to witness in my entirety.

Early afternoon on Sunday, August 11th found me in the Technical Session on Fungal Molecular Systematics and Evolution, moderated by David Hibbett. I discovered that I may be able to impress people at parties by referring to wood as “lignocellulose”, and that the phrase “rot plots” exists. I also learned about new techniques for examining fossil fungi, that perylene is just one of many fungal biomarkers, and soft rot is relatively common in extreme environments. That evening, two labmates and I ventured to Amy’s Ice Cream, an ice cream parlor whose shtick is throwing ice cream at their guests. I successfully caught not only the small sample spoon, but also a scoop of ice cream thrown across two lanes of traffic, at night, and was awarded my ice cream free of charge.

Monday morning I attended the Technical Session on Ectomycorrhizal Community Ecology and Endophytes. There, I learned that, like diversity at human gatherings, fungal species composition can be affected by the age of the host. Notably, rarefaction curves made one of their first appearances in this session. These curves of sampled species diversity were a common sighting throughout the conference, and as the slopes rarely plateaued, indicate that fungal ecologists have barely begun to scratch the surface of fungal diversity. This is good news for beginning graduate students.

During lunch, I crashed the Widely Prevalent Plant-Pathogenic Fungi Working Group, to see how our compatriots in APS think about fungi. I quickly discovered that when these folk say “fungi”; they really mean “fungal plant pathogens”. Fungi are seldom ever friendly in the context of their work. Later, Barbara Howlett delivered the Karling Lecture on her work with the bootleg disease of canola. It was an inspiring lecture, uniting eco-evo theory with practical applications in agriculture to increase crop yield and avoid boom and bust cycles. In the evening, the MSA Student Mixer was a roaring success with over 100 attendees, and afterwards I ran down to a nearby bridge to watch North America’s largest urban bat colony emerge from its daytime roost. It was a chiropterologist’s dream (or a chiroptophobe’s nightmare).

Nicole Hynson moderated Tuesday morning’s Special Session, Fungal Ecology Beyond Boundaries: From Communities to the Globe. There were a lot of heavy hitters in the lineup, including John Klironomos, Tadashi Fukami, Kabir Peay and Lee Taylor. The research was extremely interesting, teaching us that AM fungi act as a sort of “insurance policy” for rough conditions, that bacteria can play an important role in plant-pollinator interactions, throwing out rare OTU’s may under-represent fungal diversity, and that it’s always appropriate to make a Robert Heinlein reference, as in Peter Kennedy’s talk, “Strangers in a New Land.”

At lunch, the Executive Board of the MSA Student Section met in a beautiful boardroom at the Hilton. While we enjoyed the free candy proffered in elegant glasses, we discussed our new role within the Society, upcoming elections, and strategies for proposing a symposium topic at East Lansing 2014. Afterwards the group sauntered back to the Convention Center to watch the charming Presidential Address given by Mary Berbee. The talk was so entertaining I failed to take my usual notes, but I did jot down a few phrases, such as “the wonders of cave moss” and, less encouraging, “publish or die”. The afternoon found me in the Technical Session Fungal Ecology 2. My personal favorite talk was that of Nicole Hynson, who discussed how fungi raise mycoheterotrophic plants, and how fungal diversity can change over the life of the host. Finally, that evening I attended an APS Leadership Opportunity and Social, at which I learned tips for networking, and then stayed well past dark chatting with an amiable department head about pitfalls of the tenure system.

I began the final day of the conference with the Special Session on Interactions and Mechanisms of Symptomless Plant Symbioses. All the talks were interesting, but I was especially intrigued by James Lawrey’s topic: endolichenic fungi, the Russian nesting dolls of microbial symbiosis. Steve Lindow also gave a fantastic talk on Xylella fastidiosa, a usually harmless endophyte of blackberries gone bad. The afternoon progressed to the symposium on Responses of Plant-Symbiotic Fungi to Climate Change. There, we learned that abiotic factors are the most influential factors on endophyte diversity, that endophytes of the Great Lake sand dunes can decrease non-host plant diversity while increasing AM diversity, and that there is a threshold level of burn severity on relative abundance of ECM.

The conference wrapped to a close with the epically fun MSA Auction and Awards ceremony. From the front table that had been hilariously freed of all other chairs, my collaborator Kristi and I watched in utmost amusement as her advisor David Geiser masterfully facilitated the auction, raking in over $600 for a set of handcrafted, mushroom themed placemats. Attendees young and old were amazingly enthusiastic to raise money for the organization, and to support and recognize up-and-coming mycologists. Representing the Student Section were oral presentation award winners Thomas Jenkinson and Serenella Linares and poster winners Kayla Arendt and Rosanne Healy. With a warm glow that was only partially due to fine wine, I walked with friends and labmates to the banquet room next door, ending the evening with tasty Southern dishes and an old-fashioned Texas hoe-down.

For anyone who missed the conference, you missed out! Fortunately, however, all the talks were recorded and are available online through APS. I’m greatly looking forward to next year’s gathering in East Lansing, Michigan, and to the International Mycological Conference in Bangkok (Thailand). I hope to see you there!

This article was originally written for Inoculum, volume 64 (5).

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