The benefits of conducting research as an undergraduate are numerous. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, doing so fosters collaborative relationships between students and university faculty, prepares students for graduate school as well as the work force, and promotes a culture of creativity and innovation on college campuses.
Former Honors College president Rachel Kunnen reaped such benefits while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology and secondary education at Purdue University Northwest, where she participated in several undergraduate research projects. One particularly noteworthy paper she helped author, titled Checklist of Indiana Fungi I: Macrofungi, was recently published in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science (PIAS).
Compiled by PNW faculty member Dr. Scott Bates, Kunnen, and then-undergraduate and graduate students Justin Golday and Nathanael Pilla, respectively, the checklist is part of a larger effort to identify and name all fungal species in the state of Indiana.
The researchers sifted through roughly 20,000 records documenting Indiana fungi, resulting in a narrowed list of 1,410 species of macrofungi. Of those, 757 species were officially reported for the first time in the PNW group’s paper; thus doubling the number of known macrofungi species in the state. The checklist of macrofungi is the first of a series of three papers, soon to be followed by checklists for microfungi, then lichens.
Kunnen described the group’s findings as “monumental.”
“Mycology is an underrepresented field,” Kunnen explained. “There’s a huge, diverse environment under the soil that’s very often not mentioned, or not known. Bringing awareness to the field has potential implications not only for modern medicine, but even biofuels.”
Another exciting moment for Bates, Kunnen, Golday and Pilla was seeing their checklist published in PIAS.
“We spent hours cross-checking these names, making sure everything was scientifically correct… I was on spring break in Florida with the TV on at night working on this research,” Kunnen said. “Finally having our hard work recognized is rewarding.”
Dr. Bates weighed in on the significance of having the paper appear in an academic journal: “As scientists, this is the principal way we disseminate information. It’s vital to communicate our work. On the undergraduate level, preparing publications introduces students to scientific writing, plus it’s great for their careers.”
The original study has blossomed into other projects and collaborations, according to Bates. For example, Dr. Andrew Miller, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor and Director of the Illinois Natural History Survey Herbarium, is involved in compiling the microfungi checklist. Bates is also mentoring a graduate student who is using high-throughput sequencing methods to document Indiana fungi along with Dr. Catherine Aime, professor and Director of the Herbaria on Purdue’s main campus in West Lafayette.
Additionally, the PNW team discovered a previously undocumented mushroom on the Westville campus, now in the Purdue Herbarium, putting the university on the mycological map.
Having completed their parts in this ongoing project, Kunnen is now pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame; Golday is continuing his education at PNW in the graduate program for biology; and Pilla is working with Save the Dunes, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Indiana Dune’s natural resources.
“I’m super proud of the team,” said Bates. “They worked hard, and I believe advances they’re making in their education and careers have something to do with their involvement in undergraduate research. This paper helped in building their CVs and it’s been fun to see everyone go on to do bigger and better things.”
Along with the study on Indiana fungi, Kunnen participated in several other undergraduate research projects with her faculty advisor Dr. Lindsay Gielda, assistant professor of biology. Notably, Kunnen placed first at PNW’s 2016 Student Research Day for her poster presentation, Enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) Binding Mechanism to Plant Leaf Proteins, a project she worked on with Gielda. Kunnen and Gielda were also the primary investigators on a study Kunnen presented at a conference hosted by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in New Orleans in June 2017. Bates assisted the duo in maintaining the fungi and in the identification of fungal samples for the project, titled Endophytic Fungi Isolated from Organic Spinach Exhibits Antibacterial Properties Towards Gram Negative and Positive Bacteria.
While these experiences certainly made Kunnen’s CV stand out among other grad school applicants, she provides that participating in undergraduate research taught her a lot about “how to be an adult.”
“Being involved in a project teaches you more than how to do research, it teaches you independence and responsibility,” said Kunnen. “In a lab, you’re surrounded by potentially harmful material that you can’t just leave laying around. You need to be aware of your surroundings and mindful of other people using the lab. It’s about respect.”
It has also helped Kunnen survive the intense, one-year graduate program she is currently enrolled in at Notre Dame. Kunnen will travel to Eldoret, Kenya, for six weeks this summer to study neonatal hypothermia, where she’ll have one month to complete her thesis before graduating in July with a Master of Science in Global Health. Following this, Kunnen plans to pursue a career in microbiology. She is applying to the Center of Disease Control as well as several research companies in Chicago, Michigan and Indiana.
Bates, S.T., J.S. Golday, R. Kunnen, and N.J. Pilla. 2017. Checklist of Indiana fungi I: Macrofungi. Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 126: 12–34.