Most Saturday mornings this fall, Donald Walker, Ph.D., instructor of biology, is searching for and collecting fungi at local parks and nature preserves. He’s getting help from students in his microbiology classes, many of whom have never visited any local park.
Walker requires each student to participate in one Saturday field trip. Many, though initially reluctant to give up a Saturday morning, have voluntarily signed up for additional outings. The day involves hunting for fungi in the morning, gathering for pizza lunch on campus and analyzing the day’s findings in a laboratory in the Davis Street Building. “I never expected to go on any trips for this class since we never have for any other lecture,” said Brandy Lawrence, a third-year pharmacy student. “This trip gave us a unique hands-on experience that is hard to find in college classes. Not only did we search for the mushrooms and other fungi, but we also went back to the lab and identified, characterized and produced spore prints of the species.”
The spore prints and samples from each outing are displayed on a table, located on the second floor of the Davis Street Building. According to Walker, the outings result in identification of medicinal, poisonous and edible mushroom species. His goal as a researcher is to study the evolutionary biology of plant pathogenic fungi that have some economic or agricultural significance.
Walker’s goal as an educator is to get students outside and excited about what they’re doing. “I enjoy taking an unconventional approach to classes,” said Walker. “Connecting students to the outdoors with doing something in the lab gets students excited.” His approach is working. “This was far more hands-on and engaging than the laboratory experiments I was expecting in microbiology,” said Catherine Wiemers, a senior environmental safety and occupational health management major. “It makes me take a second look at the parks I visit on a regular basis, and I have a new appreciation for the prevalence and diversity of organisms, especially fungi present in Findlay.”
Both Wiemers and Lawrence have found some interesting fungi samples. Wiemers was especially impressed with a Trichaptum biforme, a shelf fungus that grows on dead fallen trees. It’s white on top, with a “fantastic purple ring” on the underside, she said. “I was surprised by how pretty fungi could be. I was expecting everything to be shades of tan and brown, but there are a whole array of colors present in the fungal world.”
Lawrence’s favorite find thus far is commonly referred to as a “puffball mushroom,” which she described as hollow inside because its spores had been released.
In addition to the class field trips, Walker is conducting a five-week experiment in his microbiology class focused on the discovery of natural products with antimicrobial activity. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, may be interested in these fungi for new drug development. Walker explained that screening fungi for antimicrobial properties is the first step in new drug development of this kind. Approximately 70 percent of students in his classes are pharmacy majors.
Independent of the microbiology classes, Walker also is supervising several undergraduate research projects focused on discovering and describing species of fungi new to science. Undergraduate students Lawrence, Kellie Stupka, and Tanner Walls are working on describing two new species collected in Japan.
Walker’s expertise is in studying plant pathogens, and he hopes to incorporate more of this type of work into a future parasitology course.