Julie discovered a gold mine research opportunity that has benefited students at Gonzaga University. “When I first came to Gonzaga, I realized that my prior research approach, involving extensive field work throughout the academic year, was not going to work with the short timeframe of undergraduate research at an institution like Gonzaga,” she said. “I decided to take a risk and work on a fungus that I had first encountered nearly 20 years ago, but I and others knew nothing about.” This research risk created more opportunities for Dr. Beckstead and her students than could ever have been imagined. The project is simple, yet ambitious: use a naturally occurring fungus to kill the seeds of the highly invasive cheatgrass that is invading natural areas and croplands in much of the Intermountain West. For the past seven years, Dr. Beckstead and her students at Gonzaga have been conducting research on this unknown fungus, which they call “Black Fingers of Death.” The name comes from the black finger-like structures that protrude from the dead seed.
The first summer working on this unknown fungus, Dr. Beckstead and her research students were able to grow the fungus in isolation, get it to “sporulate” (to produce its reproductive structures critical for identification and infection), get it identified by an expert and determine that it was able to kill healthy seeds.
The student opportunities from this project have been vast. Since that first summer, Dr. Beckstead has received four research grants that provided funding for students to conduct the research, her students have received three individual research awards, their work has been published in numerous scientific papers with students as coauthors, the students have presented their research at national science meetings, and Dr. Beckstead has been an invited speaker at several science meetings. These opportunities have enabled several of her students to enter top graduate programs around the nation. “It’s exciting to be involved in a project that has the potential to help solve a problem as big and difficult as cheatgrass,” Dr. Beckstead said. “It’s also a great opportunity for students to be involved in real research on a real-world problem.”