I started life in Connecticut, USA in, what was then, a rural area. As a young teen I built a log cabin with a friend, but we were not very skilled craftsmen at that stage. Within a few years that cabin had started to rot – settling into a pile about 1-meter high after about 10 years! I guess I was impressed by the power of nature and the fungi that had caused the destruction of the cabin, so I decided to become a Forest Pathologist. That was not a particularly well-known field, and I can remember being introduced by an Aunt as a budding “Forest Mythologist” – complete with serious follow-up questions about my background in forest gnomes and fairies!
My father died when I was 5, so money was not abundant, and my first year of college was at the University of Idaho – at that time one of the lowest-cost Universities that offered education in forestry and wood products. I got lonely for the east coast after only a year, and transferred to the University of New Hampshire where a number of great things happened. Foremost among those was meeting a girl named Jody Jellison who I have been fortunate enough to hang around with now for a number of years. She also had an interest in fungi – and wood! We were both on the Woodsmen’s Team. I was the Captain of that team my senior year – and yes, I am an axe throwing champion, although my skills may be a little rusty now. Another great thing that happened was getting to work in the lab of Dr. Alex Shigo “The Father of Arboriculture” that was down the road from UNH. I learned a lot about culturing and cleaning up fungal cultures from wood at that time. Dr. Shigo was branching off into wood products at that time, and he decided that I should oven-dry some creosote-treated utility pole sections we had been isolating fungi from. Needless to say, once the creosote starting bleeding out in the heat of the oven, the entire lab learned quickly that might not be the best procedure.
After UNH, Jody and I got graduate offers at Oregon State University. I worked first at OSU under Bob Graham, and then Dr. Bob Krahmer for my PhD. Dr. Ted Scheffer provided a great deal of hands-on training in the lab at that time – teaching me more about fungi, for which I have been forever grateful. Although quite interested in the fungi, I ended up working mostly on fumigants for my degrees (as one has to pay attention to one’s funding source), so both my MS and PhD were on chloropicrin. However, Jody and I worked on some side-projects together, and at that time we both started getting interested in fungal mechanisms and looking at some new metabolites known as iron-binding “siderophores” from decay fungi. We graduated, and I took a post-doc (Associée de Recherche) at Laval University that Dr. Helmuth Resch arranged for me conducting research with Dr. John Pierre Hösli in Quebec, Canada on “pulsation” and related pressure treatment systems to get better penetration in spruce and other recalcitrant species. Jody couldn’t get a work-permit in Canada, so she ended up taking a post-doc at Harvard University, a 10-hour drive away. This started a long weekend commute cycle for us, for about a year when I was lucky enough to apply for, and get, an Asst. Professor position at the University of Maine.
As a new Asst Professor, I had some freedom to travel, and our first IRG meeting was in Honey Harbor, Canada in 1987. That first meeting I learned so much!! Dr. Geoffrey Daniel from Sweden was there at one of his first meetings, and he would become a lifelong friend. Geoff and I spent the first evening of the meetings at a table in the dining hall with a bottle of wine, discussing fungal decay mechanisms long into the night. He had seen some things under the electron microscope that no one else had ever seen, and I was developing an understanding of non-enzymatic fungal decay mechanisms. There was a lot of science that we needed to learn from each other. That was the start of just one of many great collaborations spawned by IRG; from sabbaticals in Japan, Sweden, Chile and Germany to many visits to my lab over the years from many of you. IRG meetings were often a highlight of the year and Jody and I dragged our two sons to many of the IRG meetings. Our boys are grown now but some of you may remember them ricocheting soccer balls off the knees of IRG President Kurt Messner and other delegates in the lobby of IRG hotels in Wales, Slovenia, Japan and other venues.
Jump forward a few years, and I now have 150+ papers on wood decay mechanisms and a few other things including papers and patents wood protection systems, carbon nanotubes from wood; and now even branching into pathogenic fungal mechanisms in animals. I was able to serve on the Executive Board of the Society of Wood Science and Technology (SWST), as President of the Forest Products Society (FPS), and took on roles such as Leader of the Wood Utilization Research Program (UMaine) and Head of a Sustainable Biomaterials department (Virginia Tech). Along the way I also became an Elected Fellow of the International Academy of Wood Science (IAWS) and also an SWST Fellow. I am currently enjoying teaching and research as a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Massachusetts. My teaching on lignocellulose and wood bioconversion continues today to be much the same as what I lectured on for many years – but these days I frame it more related to sustainability and solutions to the climate crisis. It is gratifying that even though I am teaching more now to upper level biochemistry and microbiology students, my students are excited and truly do “get” why wood and wood deterioration/protection is important. As such, life and work continue to be quite exciting!
This bio was written for the May 2020 IRG Newsletter.