As it turns out, mycologists have a wicked sense of humor. If you meet Carolyn Young on the right day, she might be wearing one of her favorite t-shirts. It's dirt brown and has a picture of a mushroom with the phrase, "I'm a fun guy." Serious research can come from fun researchers in Young's world.
A native of New Zealand, Young leads a mycology lab at the Noble Research Institute with the goal of producing improved forage grasses, a staple of grazing livestock. Thanks to a fungus that lives within tall fescue - Young's forage focus - the grass can better withstand the trials of drought and disease. Capitalizing on this symbiosis has become the focus of Young's research team and her passion.
Young, 46, is the first of her family to graduate college. She originally attended a vocational school to study science, and then she went on to earn her degrees, a bachelor's, master's and doctoral, from Massey University in New Zealand. Since coming to Noble in 2006, she has worked as a principal investigator and was recently promoted to associate professor. Her husband, David McSweeney, oversees the organization's greenhouses. Together, these Kiwis are giving the Foundation a New Zealand kick.
Young is at the height of her career, but insists the fun isn't over. Below, she discusses gin, genomics and growing up in the family business.
What are endophytes?
Endophytes are microorganisms (fungi or bacteria) that live inside plants. Most people associate fungi with mushrooms or moldy food, but the fungal endophytes I work with can protect some of the grasses we use as forage for grazing animals by providing mechanisms, like drought tolerance or resistance to some insects.
What impact do endophytes have on animals?
Unfortunately, some aspects of the endophyte can be harmful to livestock. Certain strains of endophyte cause fescue toxicosis, an illness caused when livestock ingest an ergot alkaloid.
Some people believe that a similar fungus commonly known as "ergot" infecting rye was responsible for the strange events surrounding the Salem witch trials.
So how does your lab use endophytes?
My laboratory finds endophytes that benefit the grasses, but are not toxic to livestock. We inoculate beneficial endophytes into plants and then work with plant breeders to develop new varieties with better persistence for the Oklahoman climate. I have also developed a quality assurance program to ensure the new varieties contain the right endophyte that is valuable to farmers when grown in the field.
Did you always want to be a scientist?
I wanted to be so many things growing up - first a flight attendant, then a vet, then a social worker. Then I didn't have a clue, but I did enjoy my chemistry class. To me, a scientist was a person in a lab coat, geeky glasses and a funny haircut. I couldn't have been more wrong. Science is a dynamic career with dynamic people. I love what I do. I'm excited to see results and figure out what they mean, even if they don't always fit my hypothesis.
Most people don't associate research and agriculture. Did you expect your career to lead to agriculture?
It still surprises me that I'm involved in agriculture since I didn't grow up in a farming background. But recently it dawned on me that agriculture is really our family business. My father was a butcher, my brother used to shear sheep, and I work out how to feed livestock. No one in my family went to a university, so I had nothing to draw on in terms of career path, like families of doctors or lawyers or teachers. But when I stop and think what we have in common as a family, the common thread is agriculture.
What's the biggest risk you ever took?
I took a position as a postdoctoral fellow in Wooster, Ohio. David quit his fabulous job. We sold our house, packed our belongings into eight suitcases, gave away everything else and moved our family to America. Our monthly income dropped to 25 percent of what it once was, but David and our sons, Patrick and Oliver, then 12 and 2, believed in me. Fourteen months later, I started my own lab at the Noble Research Institute.
How was adjusting to a new country?
We grew up watching a lot of American television, but we were still surprised when we moved here. The school buses really are yellow ("The Simpsons"), and high schools really have cheerleaders, pom-pom squads and marching bands (most American movies). Most people see Ardmore and even Oklahoma as small and untamed, but it's a nice place to live with great people and lots of space. It gives me energy.
What's the best advice you ever took?
I'm not sure if this was the best advice, but it sure was memorable. My Aunty Jane told me it's better to drink beer than gin and tonic if you want to stay out of trouble. I have loved beer ever since, and it's one of my favorite fungi-based products. If I weren't a scientist, I would follow my father's retirement footsteps and run a country pub in New Zealand. You would all be welcome to visit, and I'd shout the first round.
What are your plans for the future?
Professionally, I want to embark on a new wave of research - comparative genomics. I want to discover what beneficial endophytes have in common genetically to see what makes them successful and what differences make one more successful than another. The Noble Research Institute is an amazing place to work because there are excellent resources and facilities to do quality research. While I get to explore the wonders of endophytes, I'm doing it for a reason - to benefit agriculture.
What about personally?
I have finally decided I want to be a United States citizen. I'm ready to make that change, and that's a big step. But I'll always be a Kiwi at heart.