UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sara Getson came to Penn State and developed an unexpected academic passion — fungi.
When the State College native arrived on campus five years ago, she thought she wanted to major in mathematics and French. As she began to explore her mathematics coursework, however, she felt largely unfulfilled.
“I found that what I was interested in was not associated with pure mathematics,” she recalled. “In the end, I really wanted to study something that had more hands-on, real-world type of applications.”
During her student orientation, Getson’s mathematics adviser recommended that she take a natural science course to satisfy a general education requirement. Getson, whose Lithuanian ancestors often foraged for wild mushrooms as a cultural tradition, decided she wanted to take a course on mycology (the study of fungi). Eventually she chose to enroll in PPEM 120, also known as “The Fungal Jungle.”
She has not looked back.
The Fungal Jungle is a plant pathology course that aims to introduce students to the world of fungi and review the important functions of fungi in human society. It teaches students how to understand the complex interactions that fungi have with our ecosystem and offers unique opportunities to develop lab skills in a practical setting.
“The labs in that course were the best!” Getson said. “They gave us the opportunity to see and do some of the things we learned about in lecture. We even went on a mushroom hunt in the woods and enjoyed a fungal feast at the end of the semester.”
After her experience in PPEM 120, Getson chose to abandon her math major and explore her passions for mycology and plant pathology. The fifth-year senior is now double-majoring in plant sciences and French and francophone studies, and triple-minoring in plant pathology, entomology and mushroom science and technology.
“The Fungal Jungle course is what got me started in plant pathology, and I don’t think I was the only one, either. There were actually a few of us who began to work in a lab in plant pathology after taking that class.”
Getson cites her Fungal Jungle professor, Maria Jimenez-Gasco, coordinator and adviser of the plant pathology minor, as an important figure in her decision to major in plant sciences. “Her enthusiasm was simply contagious,” she said. “You could tell that she loved what she was teaching.”
Since taking the course, Getson has become deeply involved with several research projects within the College of Agricultural Sciences. In 2013, she started working as a plant pathology lab assistant under Professor Emeritus Gary Moorman, a position she held for two years. Moorman’s mentorship has had a significant role in fostering her love for plant pathology. Now she is conducting research with Associate Professor Gretchen Kuldau and Assistant Professor John Pecchia on mushroom cultivation and mycotoxins.
“It has been an honor to work with two amazing professors on my final project,” she said. “We’re all just one big team working together and assisting each other when we can — I love it!”
Getson is currently in the process of applying and interviewing for graduate school programs in plant pathology, though she is still undecided about which industry she’d like to work in. She is considering agricultural extension and education as a possible career path.
No matter where she ends up, though, she hopes to inspire others to study plant sciences as her professors and research mentors have done for her.
“One of my favorite extra projects that I have done was to present on wild mushrooms to a local Girl Scout troop. The interest and excitement in the girls’ eyes as I talked about, showed pictures of, and had them feel and touch various types of mushrooms was simply unforgettable. That is the kind of difference I want to make!”