A Growing Desire to Learn
Gus Holman knows a thing or two about mushrooms.
First, he knows that morel mushrooms are prized finds by those who hunt and gather them. Secondly, he knows that these mushrooms are expensive for others to purchase. And, he knows that morels are not easy to grow outside of their natural environment.
Knowing these three basic facts helped lead him to the Kent State Salem Campus and, ultimately, an extensive research project involving morel mushrooms.
“My interest in studying mushrooms started with a conversation with my father,” Holman said. “While building my parents a greenhouse, my dad was lamenting over the fact that he hasn’t found a single morel mushroom in the past several years. I had recently seen a story where a lucky person was able to grow morels in their backyard after many trials and errors. … I promised my father that on my next visit we could follow the same steps.”
It was then that his research truly began; the “spores” were planted.
“After my visit [with my father], I couldn’t stop thinking about trying to grow these mushrooms, so I decided to try to grow morels in my own backyard,” Holman said. “After further research into growing morels, I learned that these mushrooms are very difficult to grow and only a few commercial producers exist around the world. This led me to my own investigation of cultivating morel mushrooms under climate-controlled conditions.”
Originally from Skandia, Michigan, Holman graduated in 2016 from Northern Michigan University with an associate degree in industrial maintenance technology. He moved to the Cleveland area and began working for a pest control company, working his way through the ranks to become a branch manager for the company.
“Shortly after this, the COVID pandemic and a tough medical diagnosis led me to realize that I need to build a career that I truly enjoyed working in,” he said. “That’s what ultimately brought me to the Salem Campus.”
Holman is a junior horticulture technology major at the campus, where he also works as a student employee doing general groundskeeping tasks such as plant installation, fertilization, pruning, weeding and landscape maintenance. He recently assembled the new hydroponic and aeroponic plant growing systems in the greenhouse and is now tasked with removing invasive plant species from the campus grounds.
He is not afraid of getting dirty, which helps when studying morel mushrooms!
For those unfamiliar with these mushrooms, morels grow wild and elusively throughout North America and Europe, typically in heavily wooded areas. They begin popping up in the spring and the morel hunting season usually extends from mid-April to mid-June. Morel enthusiasts are known to keep their favorite hunting spots a secret and they find great joy in foraging for them.
Harvesting morel mushrooms is a physical and time-consuming process; they are seasonal, somewhat fragile and perishable, which makes them quite pricey.
“Morel mushrooms are often very difficult to find in the wild because they need an ideal chain of environmental conditions to grow the actual mushroom caps,” Holman explained. “It’s also believed that a changing climate is reducing the number of morels produced each year. So, with both of those factors in mind, I hope to achieve a way to produce these mushrooms sustainably for commercial consumption.”
For his research, Holman is studying the yellow morel (Morchella americana) and the black morel (Morchella angusticeps) species, trying to grow them in a controlled lab environment.
So far, he has found the ideal temperature and humidity conditions that produce abundant growth of morel mycelium. “Mycelium can be thought of as the roots of the mushroom,” he explained. “I have also found a promising growing mixture to base the next steps of my research on."
Holman further explained that one of his biggest challenges through the process was dealing with mold. “When trying to cultivate fungi, like in my research, you create a perfect environment in which all types of fungi, like mold and mildew, grow. These often-harmful fungi can easily outcompete or disease the mushrooms I’m researching.”
Last summer, Holman received a SURE fellowship which helped him focus on his research. The Summer Undergraduate Research Experience provides opportunities for students to work with faculty mentors to gain firsthand research experience. Those receiving the fellowships are funded over an eight-week course to conduct their research.
After eight weeks, the student researchers presented their findings through a three-minute thesis presentation at a conference on the Kent Campus. Holman placed second at that event.
This past fall, he placed first in the poster presentation category during the Salem Campus Undergraduate Research Conference.
Holman gives credit to the faculty at Kent State Salem for supporting his research and encouraging him throughout this journey, especially Dr. Sarah Eichler of the horticulture program. “Without her guidance and knowledge, my time here at Kent would not be the same,” he said.
“Of course, Dr. Sheren Farag (director of the horticulture program) has been encouraging and wants to see me go on into a graduate program. Also, without Dr. Louise Steele’s (assistant professor of biology) autoclave knowledge and experience, my research would not have been as successful.”
After graduation, Holman would like to start his own business, incorporating his research into that venture. “I plan to continue my research after graduation and, potentially, seek a career in mushroom cultivation,” he said. “I also want to continue my education and find a graduate program in mycology, the study of fungi.”
While quite serious about his research and his academic studies, Holman is a cheerful young man with a great sense of humor. When folks “joke” that he must be a “fun guy” because of his research with mushrooms and fungi, he has a ready-made response: “No, I’m just Fun-Gus!”
Cutline A: Gus Holman
Cutline B: A growing mixture that could help produce morel mushrooms on a commercial basis. For now, it’s being used in a lab on the Kent State Salem Campus.
Cutline C: Gus Holman is hands-on with his research project.
Cutline D: Evidence of Gus Holman’s groundskeeping work on the Kent State Salem Campus grounds: a welcome to KSU.