Meet Mia Maltz:
Mistress of Mycology
Mia Maltz is a researcher at the University of California, Irvine in the Treseder Lab of Fungi, Ecosystems and Global Change where she conducts experiments on microfungi associated with coastal sage scrub habitats. Aside from being a bad-ass female mycologist, Mia is a community organizer and has been leading initiatives for the food security, social, and environmental justice movements for the past 13 years. Her efforts reach far beyond her immediate community as she is co-founder of the Amazon Mycorenewal Project and the Mycological Society of America’s Student Section. We are honored to have Mia as October’s Womyn of the Month and are excited to introduce her to you and the entire Female & Fungi community.
Interview with Mia Maltz:
Female & Fungi: What advice have you received from fungi?
Mia Maltz: Decomposer fungi growing on, growing in, and transforming a substrate into itself- dissolving any boundaries. Exponential power – from an ember to a network. Build soil. Exchange nutrients. Create the conditions conducive for life.
FF: How did you first get introduced to mycology?
MM: My dad had a fungal field guide when I was a kid. We would look around the area near where I grew up and find mushrooms, sometimes we would key them out, but usually not.
FF: What have you grown to love so much about mycology since your first introduction?
MM: The fungal kingdom fascinates me! I love how diverse and ubiquitous fungi are. I also believe that fungi perform many functions in the ecosystem that are often overlooked. So many doors have opened for me since I dedicated my life to studying and teaching about mycology.
FF: At what point did you realize mycology was what you wanted to pursue as a professional career?
MM: Probably about 15 years ago my worldview changed; I was ready to be a part of the solution and I knew fungi were going to play a major role in industrial ecology. Personally and professionally, I was excited about incorporating fungi into ecological systems and the built environment.
FF: If you had advice to give a newbie in the field, what would it be?
MM: Learn to ID mushrooms – then you will be able to recognize mushrooms wherever you are. Dive into mycological education – there is unlimited information out there about fungi — also read the literature – people are publishing lots of interesting studies every year. Join a journal club at a mycology lab – folks get together every week to discuss interesting experiments involving fungi. Join the mycological society – either local, regional or national. MSA has a student group, that’s a great way to plug in. Apply for grants – Design experiments. If you are going to set up some cultivation projects and some mycoremediation installations – try and replicate the experiment a few times ( at least 3) and try to control for variables, so that you can gather some meaningful results and contribute to the knowledge-base. Get some experience using statistics. Mentor with someone, or volunteer to work in someone’s lab. This type of experience is invaluable.
FF: Are you currently a mentor?
MM: I am. I like to help people to explore scientific and mycological realms. Last year, I taught science 2 days a week at Cesar E. Chavez continuation high school in Santa Ana. In 2011 in New Haven, I set up a mentorship program that paired junior mycologists with senior mycologists. It worked out pretty well!
FF: Would you be willing to be a mentor to someone new?
MM; Sure, but it can be time consuming. Sometimes, I need to be cautious that I don’t spend too much time mentoring and not enough time on my own work.
FF: The process of looking for a mentor can be intimidating and nerve-wracking. What advice do you have for someone looking for a mentor and how would you suggest approaching a potential mentor?
MM: I throw the net pretty wide and consider it detective work. I email someone, offer to come to their turf for a brief visit with them, or set up a time to talk on the phone. Respecting their time is important, mentors are often busy. Do your homework–read their publications or at least see what comes up on a google search. Have some specific questions prepared. Then take notes when you meet them, and follow up on threads – if they mention someone who has interesting work–contact them and say you heard about their work from that person. Sometimes you find your mentor from following up on leads from potential mentors’ musings. Also, go to talks – lots of mycological society’s have featured speakers of the month–see what type of research is being done. Take a mycology class at a college, even if you are non-matriculating. Offer to volunteer in someone’s lab, or help out during field work, or for someone’s project.
FF: How do you see mentorship continuing to play a role in the mycological community?
MM: I think that many mycologists have lab set-ups or fruiting zones that can be inspirational and functional. Also, lots of active mycologists could use help with processing substrates or running assays on samples. New scientists have a lot to learn and could benefit from some repetitive activities, like data collection. Mentors could support mentee engagement by inviting them into their lab or myco-zone regularly to help with some activities. Educational work parties can be mutually beneficial.
FF: And who may we ask have been some your mentors, role models and wise wizards along the way?
MM : My dad was the first person to introduce me to Paul Stamets when I was a kid. He signed us up for a beginners cultivation course in 1996 and that was definitely a turning point in my life. I ended up taking Fungi Perfecti’s last Master cultivation course in 2004, as well as their first ever Mycorestoration Seminar.
Also, my permaculture teachers: Brock Dolman and Penny Livingston and Starhawk. In academic mycology, Dennis Desjardin introduced me to the work of fungal systematics, fungal symbiosis, and mushroom taxonomy. Also, Tom Bruns’ and John Taylor’s love of fungi was contagious – because of their insights I got turned on to a lot of the basal fungi and tons of obscure organisms. Some of my favorite mycologists are from the UK or Sweden – such as Lynne Boddy, Geoffrey Gadd, Alan Rayner, and Bjorn Lindahl. I am also really impressed by David Hibbett, Ann Pringle, and Tom Volk. In California, Michael Cohen and Norman Terry helped me to become a better scientist by designing bioremediation experiments. Also, Rebecca Daly and Mary Firestone’s lab taught me a lot about large scale collaborative research in bioremediation and microbial ecology. Currently, I work in Kathleen Treseder’s lab where I learn new applications for fungal ecosystem ecology and fungal biogeochemistry.
FF: Woah! That’s a lot of wizards… But it is always wise to get a well rounded perspective on a topic. What research are you now conducting at the Treseder lab?
MM: I am documenting the role of fungi in ecological restoration. I am interested in the functional role fungi play in ecosystems. I investigate fungal response and effect traits- how fungi respond to ecological restoration practices or environmental disturbance, and what effect fungi have on the ecosystem.
FF: Why is this research important to you?
MM: There is so much degraded land and ecological restoration is gaining traction. However, lots of restoration is plant-centric and little emphasis is placed on role of the belowground organisms–fungi and bacteria– in assisting the rehabilitation of degraded land.
FF: What sorts of projects are you working on outside of your research at the Treseder Lab?
MM : These days I have less time for any other project that is unrelated to my research in Treseder Lab. But, I am the chair of the Mycological Society of America (MSA) Student Section and we are working on developing a symposium to present at the next MSA meeting in East Lansing, MI. I also continue to assist and consult on grassroots bioremediation efforts. I am starting a nonprofit called CoRenewal that is focused on community health and ecosystem resilience. One project that is still really close to my heart is the Amazon Mycorenewal Project, or AMP.
FF: Can you explain for our readers what is the Amazon Mycorenewal Project?
MM: It’s a grassroots organization that is motivated to explore the use of fungi in remediating petroleum contamination and detoxifying degraded land in Ecuador.
FF: How did it get its start?
MM: I was giving a workshop on fungi and permaculture at Symbiosis Gathering in 2006, and a woman in the audience — Nicola Peel — was motivated to apply mycoremediation technologies on contaminated land in Ecuador. We linked up with Freeda Burnstad and the Cloud Forest Institute to write grants for the project, and began building our team by bringing in wastewater specialists, geologists, and mycologists.
FF: Ecuador seems far from home. What makes this work crucial to the contamination there?
MM: The contamination in Ecuador has been devastating the region since the 1960s. The local people are looking for ways to detoxify their water supply and their landscapes. Also, there has been a messy lawsuit, so much organized restoration and remediation has been mired in the legal battle.
FF: How has AMP evolved over time?
MM: It began as a research group conducting experiments in Ecuador, using mushrooms-typically white-rot fungi–to digest petroleum toxicity. We also documented the local fungi in the region and conducted ecological surveys in a petroleum pollution gradient. Then we developed plant bioassays to assist local people with refining simple metrics, like plant seed germination frequencies, to determine whether bioremediation experiments were successfully detoxifying soil. Also we taught a bunch of workshops and increased our network. But, now we are returning back to conducting research, without the added pressure of teaching a course.
FF: How do you see it evolving to in the future?
MM: My advisor has a soils permit, to transport soils internationally. I would like to bring some soil back to the states with her permit and use metagenomics to identify members of the fungal community that live in a petroleum pollution gradient. I’d like to add a molecular component to the research – see if the fungi we are finding have genes that are capable of digesting petroleum hydrocarbons. We can design simple applications based on our results, like making a fungal slurry to inoculate oil contaminated landscapes with entire microbial communities. Members of our team may design more mycofiltration devices optimized for the tropical environment in Ecuador and explore passive pasteurization techniques in the region. Also, we hope to design and install some mycofilters for the run-off from oil extraction processes.
FF: Seriously, this is a super cool project. How would someone who is interested get involved?
MM: You can email us: firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on the web. Send us an email and we can help you get on our mailing list. We have started some working groups to mobilize our efforts. We are setting up an IndieGogo account, if you would like to donate. Also we are hoping to do more on-the-ground research this Winter. When we set up experiments, it is helpful to have long-term interns stay to monitor the experiments.
FF: Did you hear that myco-nerds? AMP may have some possible opportunities for really great research! It also sounds like you have your hands in a lot of community based projects. How did you become interested in being a community organizer?
MM: When I was in high school I was involved with Amnesty International and student environmental groups, but I didn’t get involved with organizing issues at the local scale until I lived in Sebastopol, CA. After being certified in Permaculture Design, I enjoyed working with a group of young people called Planting Earth Activation installing guerilla gardens, teaching workshops, building community, and organizing direct actions to support food security and social justice. One of the founders of this group and I started an industrial-ecology community-based group called RITES: Return Intention Towards Ecological Sustainability. With RITES, I interfaced with community members and the City Council to divert organic materials from the landfill, grow mushrooms and worms on these materials, and transform city land into multi-use spaces like the Laguna Skategarden, a skatepark and community garden space.
FF: That is honestly one of the coolest ideas we’ve heard of, a Skategarden?! We mean really, every community should have one. What were some of the first events you were helping to organize?
MM; In 2001, I helped organize the first Bay Area Regional Permaculture Convergence in San Francisco. I also organized RITES to Skate, a fundraiser for RITES and the Laguna Skategarden. Some other events included an anti-GMO rally and an action at an urban garden slated for development because of soil contamination, where participants simply gardened, made seed-balls, and worked with hands-on mycoremediation techniques. In 2004, I helped organize and coordinate the Permaculture in Paradise permaculture course in Kaui’i, Hawai’i.
FF: How has your leadership role evolved since you began organizing?
MM: I used to just teach sessions about decomposers–worms or mushrooms– at permaculture courses, classrooms, or events. Then I started working behind the scenes to develop curriculum, learning objectives, and create new courses–like the Permaculture First Responder where we certified people in permaculture and Wilderness First Aid through NOLS. I am more comfortable in a leadership role these days, after having more experience leading workshops and mentoring people. As a scientist, I have had numerous high school and college age students work with me. I strive to communicate clearly, but effectively, design experiments and activities that will yield results, and encourage others to generate hypotheses and translate their awe of nature into ideas about how or why natural phenomena exist.
FF: And what, may we ask, do you think are some of the parallels between female & fungi?
MM: Fungi are so mysterious, intricate, and beautifully complex. It takes conscious intention to develop a strong relationships with the fungal kingdom, that may unfold for a lifetime. Fungi are sexual beings, with mushrooms as reproductive organs, but their gametes are embedded within the hymenophore, like our developing follicles within our ovaries. Females are generative and regenerative. The mother mycelium protects her numerous nodes, receives stimuli, and can reassess and redirect growth in the most nurturing direction. Fungal mycelium is receptive to nutrients unlocked in decomposition; these nutrients flow through the coenocytic hyphae, and then may replenish depleted tissues.
FF: What has been your experience as a womyn in the field?
MM: I have been fortunate to work with many powerful womyn along my journey – AMP has been initiated and coordinated almost completely by womyn-and every person in my current lab is a female mycologist. Many of the young people I mentored have been womyn or girls, and they tend to teach me as much as I offer them in return.
FF: What do you think are some of the benefits of being a womyn in the field?
MM: There are lots of opportunities for healing landscapes and supporting community initiatives, and many strong females I know tend to rise to leadership positions in these types of endeavors. I think many womyn have heightened compassion and earth wisdom that can compel us to perform service-oriented activities.
FF: How would you encourage more womyn to get involved?
MM: Dispel the stereotype that scientists are white-haired men with lab coats, and embrace the archetype of beautiful, capable, juicy female scientists observing the natural world, designing experiments to contribute to the knowledge base, and inspiring others to continue doing this crucial work.
FF: What do you think are some of the major challenges for womyn in the field?
MM: There is lots of data that shows that even today womyn are being valued less than men in the sciences. It makes me sad that I have been advised to put my initials on my CV, instead of my full feminine first and middle name, to give me a better chance of being invited to interview for a competitive position. While both men and womyn have to work hard, produce results, and communicate science to our community, womyn bear children and will have to take maternity leave. When a womyn is of childbearing age, it could deter a potential employer from seriously considering her application.
FF: What are some of the ways womyn can actively challenge this inequality in the workplace and how have you personally combated it?
MM: In the academic workplace, it is illegal for potential employers to ask questions about age, marital status, children, or sexual orientation. As long as womyn stay professional in their interview and don’t volunteer this information, their privacy should be respected. I haven’t consciously faced this inequality in the workplace, but I have no way of knowing if any of my grant proposals have been rejected solely because I am female.
I know a lot of extremely successful female mycologists and microbial ecologists. From my perspective, when womyn express their brilliance, creativity, and competence within the workplace, this is recognized and rewarded.
FF: We definitely recognize and appreciate you and all of your contributions to our global community- mycological and otherwise. What do you love about yourself?
MM: I wonder why things are the way they are in the natural world and I still have an insatiable appetite to learn about fungi. I am willing to dive into situations that are out of my comfort zone and gain experiences that help me grow as a person. I have explored lots of alternative healing modalities for earth and people and other sacred and esoteric arts, yet I can usually drop in and connect with any person, find common ground, and share ideas.
FF: It sounds like you can adapt to a wide range of situations like many of our beloved mushrooms. If you could be a mushroom, which one would you be and why?
MM: There are so many fascinating fungi so I’ll pick a few fungal attributes that I resonate with–but I urge you not to associate me with their common names.
Neolentinus lepideus– Neolentinus is a gilled brown rot wood decay basidiomycete fungus that has also been shown to biodegrade very recalcitrant compounds in an energy efficient way. It’s common name is the Trainwrecker because it has been found growing on creosote soaked railroad ties. Even if I’m not interested in being associated with wrecking trains, I’ve been fascinated with brown rot fungi and their derived nutritional mode.
I could also resonate with Laccaria bicolor – this mushroom is probably a key player in global change research–it shows up in my lab’s research plots in Alaska. While this Laccaria’s common name is also far from appealing–it is known as the Deceiver– I assure you, I strive to communicate honestly. I’ve been excited about fungi that produce lignolytic enzymes, yet practice mycorrhizal associations–Laccaria is mycorrhizal and saprotrophic, and can even be considered carnivorous because of how it forages for nitrogen. This fungus is resourceful! It maintains connections, links plants and animals, and connects earth and sky. It plays a role in global nutrient cycling and can be cultured without a plant host. It’s a survivor, has lovely purple mycelium, and is a pioneering fungus–as the first mutualistic fungus to have its genome sequenced.
We want to thank Mia for being our a fantastic interviewee and inspiration to us all.
For more information about some of her projects check out these additional resources:
- Treseder Lab of Fungi, Ecosystems and Global Change
- Mycological Society of America: Students
- Cloud Forest
- Eyes of Gaia
- Amazon Mycorenewal Project
The What & Why of Honoring “Womyn of the Month”
Womyn of the Month recognizes womyn scientists, activists, community organizers, humanitarians, and other womyn that are making a difference in the field of mycology or alongside our fungal friends. If you would like to nominate a womyn for this honor, please contact us at email@example.com.