Montana State University

Exotic fungi lure MSU student away from Columbus, Fort Peck for the summer

June 17, 2003 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU Research Office

Erica Dobbs with a beaker that contains a fungus and nutrient broth.   High-Res Available

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If this had been a normal summer, Erica Dobbs of Columbus would have been waitressing at the Fort Peck Hotel.

She would have served the crowds who stopped by before the evening production at the Fort Peck Theatre. Then she would have spent her off-hours with her parents, Duane and Andrea Dobbs, and her sister, Lisa who leave Columbus every summer to be closer to relatives around Glasgow, Fort Peck and Nashua. Some of those relatives are Dobbs' grandmother, Mary Johnston, and uncle, Mike Johnston, of Fort Peck.

This isn't a typical Dobbs summer, though.

Instead of heading north, Dobbs is staying at Montana State University-Bozeman. She is involved in two separate programs that pay undergraduate students to do research during the summer. One program is the Undergraduate Scholars Program (USP). The other is Complex Biological Systems (CBS). They are among several programs that encourage undergraduate research at MSU.

"I love it. I look forward to coming to work everyday," Dobbs said from the laboratory where she studies exotic fungi.

The lab belongs to professor Gary Strobel who travels the world, looking for fungi that might produce beneficial compounds. Dobbs works in Strobel's lab under the supervision of Uvidelio Castillo, an assistant research professor.

"Our lab is interested in finding organisms, in this case fungi, that may produce antibiotics that could be leading to medicine or that could be leading to uses in agriculture," Castillo said.

For her CBS project, Dobbs is trying to identify the active compound in a fungus that originated in New Guinea. In her USP project, Dobbs is looking for the byproducts of fungi that came from Australia and Tanzania. Last semester, in her first USP project, she tried to revive fungi from Peru.

"It's really interesting what you can do just from a little piece of bark," Dobbs commented.

Dobbs showed shelves of beakers where fungi grow and produce secondary materials. She pulled out petri dish after petri dish of fungi that develop in a variety of patterns and colors.

"They produce a whole bunch of stuff, stuff you wouldn't get to see on a regular basis," Dobbs said.

Both projects may tell her if she should pursue a career in research.

"I wanted to make sure this is what I wanted to do before I got a lot further in my education," said Dobbs, who just completed her sophomore year. She's majoring in biotechnology.

Castillo found his niche in a similar way.

"When I was an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to find a job at the lab I was getting my degree in," he said. "So right now, I have 20 years experience because I started early. I knew that was something I wanted to do."

Outside the lab, Dobbs is conducting a different sort of experiment. When she's not playing tennis, riding her mountain bike or swimming, she's trying to grow carrots, spinach and lettuce.

"We will have to see if it turns out," she said, sounding almost like she's talking about her future.

Dobbs, who misses the annual trek to Fort Peck, said she would love to stay in Montana after she graduates. She doesn't know if she'll be able to find a job in her field, though.

"My main goal would be to give back to Montana through science," Dobbs said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or