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Researcher Profile: Kelly Craven

Posted Jul. 9, 2009

Kelly Craven
Kelly Craven

Kelly Craven enjoys the road less traveled. Months after earning his bachelor's degree, Craven placed graduate school on hold and struck out on his own, shaking off the status quo for a little unfamiliar terrain. He bounced from the Bavarian Alps to the Mediterranean on a personal quest of discovery that honed his scientific aspirations and provided him confidence to blaze his own trail. Things haven't changed much in the last 15 years. Today, the 38-year-old Phoenix native is a mycologist, studying the phenomenal world of fungi and how they can maximize forage crops for the benefit of agricultural producers. It's certainly not a traditional course of research and that's just fine with Craven.

On his research:
My research involves using beneficial fungi to enhance agricultural food crops and bioenergy crops. I also look at what makes a fungus develop and grow, as well as how those fungi form harmful or beneficial relationships with plants.

On the impact of fungi on humans:
Fungi can help create larger, healthier plants by forming symbiotic relationships with them. They can also expand the range and types of lands that crops can be grown on. Learning how to get the most output from croplands and how to make use of low quality lands for agriculture is the key to feeding the world's growing population.

On his passion for fungi:
Fungi are amazing for their ability to produce a diverse array of compounds that humans use in medicine. Fungi are also the great recyclers. Without fungi, the land would literally pile up with plant material that could not be decayed and recycled. That's not all - fungi can extract their nutrition from almost every conceivable source and can colonize bare rock, jet fuel, leather, etc. To top it off, many of them are quite tasty and others make beer.

On trips, Dairy Queen and cooties:
We had a camper on my dad's truck, and we made a couple of cross-country trips when I was young. The camper came up over the cab of the truck, where my sister and I would spend hours looking out the window and talking. We tried to convince my dad to stop at every Dairy Queen we passed. That was a special time. Soon after the last trip, I discovered that "girls have cooties." My sister and I weren't such good friends after that. But let's face it, cooties are cooties.

On youthful life lessons:
My first job was bussing tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Mesa, Ariz. I was 14 and somehow got to hang out with the bartenders after work. It was a lot of fun, but it's probably why I did so poorly as a freshman in high school.

On ski lifts and Greek beaches:
After I earned my bachelor's degree at Arizona State University, I spent half a year working as a chair lift operator at a ski resort in the Bavarian Alps. I skied to work and sat in the sun all day. This was the most carefree time in my life. When the ski season ended, I hitchhiked to Prague and then flew to Greece for a month. Those were truly special days. I learned how to be self-sufficient and gained a deep admiration for other cultures. Lying there on the beaches in Greece was great at first. I lived solely off of Nescafe, noy-noy (goat's milk), tomatoes and bread. But I grew bored and realized I was missing mental stimulation. I recognized that I needed to pursue my scientific career. So, when I returned, I applied for graduate school.

On hobbies both indoors and out:
I grew up playing pool with my father (often in places I probably shouldn't have been), and this was always kind of a special thing between us. Even as he got sick in his later years, we still enjoyed our time there. Today, I still play. I've been known to give some fellow scientists a lesson or two. I also love to be in nature. I really get a sense akin to a religious experience when I hike. Nature is my church.

On his lifelong love affair with music:
I love rock and roll. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, KISS and the Rolling Stones provided the soundtrack to my life. One year my laboratory group dressed up as the Stones for Halloween. I was Keith Richards.

On being a scientist:
I think every scientist yearns for that thrill of discovery. To play a small part in pushing our knowledge forward is extremely satisfying to me.

On finding inspiration:
Art and music are very inspiring. I think individuality and walking your own path is inspiring. Arizona sunsets are definitely inspiring.

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