The fungi Meredith Blackwell studies can kill you. They also are essential to life. That paradox intrigues the world-renowned researcher now at USC. But Blackwell became a mycologist by accident.
By Mark Manicone
April, 19, 2017
The things Meredith Blackwell looks at as she spends her mornings hunched over her computer at the Drip coffee shop can kill you.
On her screen are likely to be pictures of crusty black fungi, the stuff no one ever wants to find in the walls of their house. But what can be deadly can also be an essential part of life.
The paradox intrigues the world-renowned researcher whose 40-year career has now brought her to the University of South Carolina.
“It’s amazing that something so obscure could play such a large role in everyday life,” Blackwell says.
Fungi, for instance, are crucial for the decay of organic material, synthesis of nutrient in plants and even the creation of the ethanol in your gas tank.
But studying the stuff that makes most people go yuck was an accident.
Blackwell says she had planned a career “near a beach somewhere in Texas” studying fish. But the researcher she was working with at the University of Texas wouldn’t take her in the field. She was the only woman.
So she quit.
Desperate for a job, Blackwell says, she heard that UT mycologist Constantine Alexopoulos, one of the field’s leading researchers, needed someone to look for slime molds in air samples.
She was the only applicant, she wrote in a 2005 remembrance after his death, so “I was reluctantly hired.” But it still took a month for Alexopoulos to call her by her first name instead of “Mrs. Blackwell.”
“I had joined the club,” she wrote.
At his urging, she got her doctorate in 1973.
Her scientific passion defines her in “the way she thinks and the way she investigates things,” says her daughter Elise Blackwell.
“The downside of having a mycologist mother is having some disgusting things in your refrigerator,” Elise Blackwell said. “But the upside is that there’s a lot of time spent outdoors.”
She says it always amazed her that her mother, former president of the International Mycologist Association and co-author of one of the field’s leading textbooks, had such achievements.
“It was always impressive to have a role model like that growing up,” she says.
Columbia Voice sat down with Meredith Blackwell to discuss her experience, her inspirations and her passion for the fungus among us.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. (Listen to the full podcast.)
We talked before about how you came to mycology as an accident. Could you tell me how that came to be, and why you stuck with it?
Yeah, I was really interested in fish and spending all the time on the water every summer for all my research time. But after getting my master’s, I went to the University of Texas. It wasn’t really where I intended to go, but the man I worked with there on fish I didn’t like at all. He wouldn’t take me on field trips … I was the only woman. So, anyway I quit, started looking for a job, and the mycologist hired me. It was the only job I could find; I was the only person he could find. But after working for him for about a semester, he said, “You ought to get back in school and work with me.” So it worked out really, really well. I was quite lucky; I made some important finds for him in that one semester I worked for him. …
What did you find most interesting about those organisms?
To me it was amazing that all this stuff was in the air, the air we breathe; it’s all around us all the time. And so that was a real eye-opener. And then later, as we went along, I learned that some people get diseases from some of these fungi. … What happens is that if you have an immune system that’s compromised, fungi can attack you. They don’t normally get you. That’s why it’s really important to stay healthy. Bacteria and viruses can get you when you’re well, but fungi get you when you’re down. …
What was your favorite or best place that you conducted this research? …
I worked for three summers at Algonquin Park in Ontario, and that was really good. We were looking for fungi on moose dung and the insects that disperse them. That was really fun, with close friends. And the other place that I really enjoyed I believe probably was Thailand where we were looking for beetles that eat mushrooms, and we were interested in what’s in their gut that might help them eat the mushrooms.
So, have you gotten any reaction as to what you do because it’s not exactly what is known? …
Most of the time it comes from my peers; they understand what I do. But once in a while you get something from the outside that’s kind of related, like the time I was able to identify a mushroom for a father whose kids had eaten it. And then he wrote a letter to the newspaper and also to the president of my university, so that was kind of nice. …
If you had to do it all over again and you had the choice to either go down the path you went or go with what you originally wanted to do, would you stay with mycology?
I think I’d probably stay with mycology because it worked out much better, less competition. We have very few mycologists in the world, actually, and they’re much needed. There are about eight times more fungi than plants and many of them unknown. In fact, on my phone when I came in I was looking – a man has just written to ask me how many fungi there are, and it’s probably close to, or at least, 5 million. And that’s many more than there are plants. … They just don’t attract enough attention, I don’t think, from students until you look at them and actually see what they’re like and see the things they do. They’re very important economically, so it’s a really good field.