Laura Bogar is a Ph.D. Student in Stanford’s Department of Biology and the Peay Lab. Her PhD work is focused on symbiotic interactions between land plants and soil fungi. She earned her undergraduate degree in Biology at Lewis & Clark College in May 2012.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?
I was born in Seattle, Washington, and grew up loving the mountains and forests of the coastal Pacific Northwest. Both of my parents love the outdoors, and we spent a lot of time as a family exploring local parks and doing more ambitious multi-day backpacking trips when my brother and I were old enough. I attended public schools in Seattle through high school, where I spent most of my time directing plays with the drama club, singing in the vocal jazz ensemble, and removing invasive ivy from local parks.
After graduation, I attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, to get my bachelor’s degree in biology while dabbling in the liberal arts. As an undergraduate, my extracurricular focus shifted from performing arts to environmental activism: I advocated for renewable energy, worked as a resident advisor for the sustainability-themed floor, and led environmental education trips focused on plant and mushroom identification. In choosing my major, I was mostly guided by a vague sense that I might like to work outdoors.
Luckily for me, a couple of my biology professors suggested that I get involved with science research, and by the end of my undergraduate career, I was hooked on plant-fungal symbiosis. After I graduated, I spent a few months working with my mentors on ecology research projects, then spent some time back in Seattle recruiting underserved students for environmental conservation jobs. A year after graduating, I started my work here at Stanford with Kabir Peay.
Now, on the cusp of graduation, I have perfected the art of carefully growing tree seedlings, only to kill them inventively in standardized harvest protocols. (I also have done a lot of molecular and physiological work, although now I mostly code and write.) I love thinking and writing about the research, and teaching students about science and life in the lab.
How did you first become interested in genetics and science? Did you want to be a scientist as a child?
When I was a child, I wanted to write stories. I was a stubborn kid, motivated by an affection for words and by the alluring idea that I could build new worlds to share with other people. I wanted creative control and the chance to spend my time exploring mental landscapes that hadn’t existed before. At the time, I had no idea that a scientific career was a way to make this happen. I feel lucky to have landed in biology.
I was initially drawn to the field because I loved the language of it. Growing up hiking around the Pacific Northwest, I discovered that the more I could describe about natural history, the more I could see to be interested in. Rather than a forest of pines, I could walk through patches of Douglass fir, western redcedar, and western hemlock, noting with surprise the occasional grand fir outside its usual range. Instead of seeing lichens, I was delighted to find lettuce lung, frog’s pelt, or fairy barf, each in its own habitat. Ecological details provided the grammar of this new language, relating each new word to the others in gratifying and unexpected ways. Knowing which plants preferred moist soil, I could infer the hydrology of an area even on a bone-dry summer day. I felt as if the landscape could speak.
As I have continued my education as a biologist, my vocabulary has deepened and become more Latinate, and my grasp of ecological grammar has improved. The symbiotic interactions between land plants and soil fungi, on which my thesis is focused, is a dialect of natural history that still awaits a thorough translation into scientific English. (I hope my work contributes to this end.) The Rosetta stone for these interactions is likely written in nucleic acids, billions of copies quietly produced each day in every gram of forest soil. As sequencing technology improves, I like to think decoding this symbiotic language is only a matter of time.
I am a scientist because I think the natural world is beautiful – especially the weirder, slimier parts of it – and science provides the language I need to engage with it more deeply. Rather than building imaginary worlds to explore the human experience, as I hoped to do as a child, I get to guide my readers into new corners of the natural world, using science as a lens to reveal the astonishing details that make our lives possible. Genomics have opened up new dimensions of the natural world, and I am honored to be working at a time when the pace of discovery is so exhilarating. I am delighted to be in a field with all the creative control and sense of discovery that I wanted as a child, even if my career looks different than I expected.
Can you tell us about your current research and what you hope to achieve with it?
I am interested in how plant roots and soil fungi work together in a mutualism called mycorrhizal symbiosis. Nearly all land plants rely on symbiotic fungi to help them acquire water and nutrients. I’m specifically interested in the ectomycorrhizal symbiosis, which links many big temperate trees (pines, oaks) with a diverse set of fungi, including some familiar edibles like chanterelles and porcini. My goal is to learn what makes this symbiosis tick, how these mechanisms have evolved, and how this affects the ecology of plants, fungi, and the forests they inhabit. I use genomics as a tool to understand both the mechanisms and the evolution of these (mostly) cooperative interactions.
In particular, I’m interested in how plants and fungi determine whether or not they are compatible with each other, and how they negotiate their cooperation. The symbioses that I study work kind of like a marketplace: plants feed carbon compounds to the fungi on their roots, and, in exchange, the fungi bring soil resources like nitrogen, phosphorus, and water back to the roots. A single plant may have dozens of fungi on its root system at the same time, and a single fungus can associate with several plants at once. Although these intimate, negotiated relationships are complex enough that we might expect them to be difficult to form, different groups of fungi have evolved this lifestyle dozens of times independently over the last hundred million years.
There are a lot of outstanding questions about how this works. Can a plant tell if one fungus offers it a better deal than another fungus? And, if it can tell, can it respond by giving the better fungus more carbon? How might the plant and the fungus communicate with each other throughout this process? And how has this intimate, complex relationship evolved so many times?
Knowing how this symbiosis works in these different fungi will help us understand how cooperation can evolve, in general, and how symbiosis can be maintained over evolutionary time. In addition, understanding how plants and fungi negotiate their trading interactions will clarify fundamental concepts in community and ecosystem ecology. Why do plants grow in some places and not others? (The fungi may have something to do with it.) How are fungal distributions related to plant distributions? On a larger scale, how does symbiotic trading affect carbon and nitrogen cycling through forests?
In my dissertation, I have used stable isotope labeling to try to understand how environmental context shifts the negotiations in this symbiotic nutrient economy, and have sequenced fungal RNA to explore how a fungus can engage in symbiosis with many different kinds of plants. In my postdoc, I plan to examine the extent to which plants might maintain diverse fungi on their roots as a way to hedge their bets against variation in the environment. I also hope to expand my work on the genetic tools that can allow a fungus to associate with many different plants, exploring how the genes that make certain fungi compatible with particular plants have evolved across related fungi.
Briefly, what’s the coolest thing about your work?
Most people don’t know that nearly all plants cooperate with fungi in the soil. I think the coolest thing about my work is that I’m learning some basic things about a symbiosis that is responsible for making the world a green place to live. Plants and fungi can trade, make “decisions,” and optimize their performance in ways that are philosophically similar to what we animals do. I like helping people think about the world from the plant and fungal point of view.
Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you attribute your educational and professional success?
I haven’t always been the best-directed future scientist. By the time I got to college, I had a vague sense that I might want to be a park ranger, or maybe a high school teacher. I figured I’d work something out while I was there.
I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the intervention of a series of supportive mentors and educators.
When I started college, I had no idea that lab research was something that an undergraduate might explore. My undergraduate mentors – Greta Binford, Paulette Bierzychudek, and Peter Kennedy – changed that, showing me that scientific research could be something I did well and enjoyed. Peter, in particular, launched me towards the PhD I am doing now by introducing me to mycorrhizal research with kindness, thoroughness, and a sense of humor, and he remains one of my most valued colleagues.
At Stanford, I have been working with Kabir Peay, who has been central to my intellectual development during my dissertation. Kabir does rigorous science with the groundedness of a California surfer, helping his students dream big and then follow up with well-designed experiments. He has encouraged me to be enormously independent in my research, which has been a real gift, and has left me with a dissertation that feels like the beginning of my very own research program. Kabir is consistently supportive and eager to direct me to resources that might help with my work. I am grateful for his mentoring and glad to be a part of his lab.
I would never have thought to envision a life in science without my early mentors, and could never have realized it without the ones who have helped me here. There isn’t room, in this blog post, to acknowledge everyone to whom I owe serious mentoring debt, but certainly my committee (Tad Fukami, Peter Vitousek, Mary Beth Mudgett), my Carnegie collaborators (Ted Raab, Ari Kornfeld, Jen Johnson), Don Hermann at Berkeley, and many other folks have all been essential parts of my career so far. My sincerest thanks to all of you.
What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you?
I have had a good time in science so far because of several incredible strokes of luck and a lot of really excellent mentoring. This leaves me feeling unqualified to give much advice, but, in my experience, seeking good mentors is a good place to start.
Working on something that interests you, of course, helps a lot. It’s also important to make sure that, whatever your job, you spend a lot of your time actually doing the activities that you enjoy. This could be coding, writing, teaching, field work, molecular biology, or something else! What I enjoy about my work is that I get to do a little of all of these things.
Most of all, go easy on yourself, and keep trying even when everything seems to be going wrong. Being successful is mostly about enduring failure until something eventually works. Celebrating little successes, and focusing on the joys of the scientific process itself, can make the whole thing a lot more fun.
What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?
I plan to pursue a career as a university professor, ideally in a place with a view of the mountains. I’d like to have my own lab, devoted to figuring out the mechanisms that drive the ecology and evolution of plant-fungal symbiosis, and to be able to teach students about plants, fungi, mutualism, and ecology. I’m not sure yet if this will be at a research-intensive university, or at an institution that puts a greater emphasis on teaching alongside faculty research, but I know I will enjoy continuing to work and write and teach about these topics for many years to come.
Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?
I value CEHG’s ability to bring together researchers that are using similar genomic tools to answer all kinds of different questions. Through the CEHG community, I have been able to learn about genomic techniques that I might not otherwise think to apply to my own work. As a scientist who mostly works on plant-fungal symbiosis, it would be easy for me to miss out on the cutting-edge analyses that the human geneticists and the theoretical evolutionary biologists are developing. Being part of this community is a valuable way for me to gain perspective and ideas for my own work. It has also been concretely helpful as I work through my own analyses: colleagues that I have met through CEHG have coached me through analyses, steered me away from errors, and helped me interpret difficult data sets. I am grateful for the scientific support that the CEHG community provides.
Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science?
When I’m not working on science, I usually like to be doing something active with my friends. My lab mates have tolerated the accumulation of a well-stocked “sports grotto” under my desk, where my running shoes, climbing gear, swimsuit, and even some underused boxing gloves are ready for any athletic opportunity that might come my way. Mostly, I run. (I think I’ve probably done the loop around the Stanford Dish at least 400 times since starting here.) But I also love to hike, and sometimes climb, and play around with group fitness classes. On weekends, I can hardly resist opportunities to organize group events, from mushroom foraging expeditions at Point Reyes to chamber music concerts in the living room of my co-op household.
I also spend time outside of the lab doing science-related activities that aren’t exactly research. Some weekends you can find me with my lab mates, leading workshops about mushrooms for middle school students; other times, I might be preparing a talk for a local mycological society. I find myself working in between biological disciplines a lot, and have sometimes found it hard to keep up with everything that’s happening at Stanford (molecular biology, ecology, and physiology all contribute important techniques and ideas to my work). To address this, I helped establish the Biology Department’s annual “Surf ‘n’ Turf Symposium” a few years ago, an event that aims to bridge traditional divisions in biology, both on the basis of systems (terrestrial vs. marine) and scales (molecular biology vs. ecology). This event has dovetailed nicely with the interdisciplinary support that CEHG provides, and has helped me feel like a part of a cohesive biological community at Stanford. In general, I think that my scientific life is most rewarding when it involves elements of research, outreach, and collaboration, and I’m glad to be able to do all of this here.