If UVM Set Me on a Course in Life...
...It Can Do So Much More for You
- By Cheryl Dorschner
What room can be eaten? A mushroom.
Why does the mushroom get invited to all the parties? Cause he’s a “fun guy.”
What do mushrooms eat when they sit around the campfire? S’pores.
A mushroom walks into a bar…. Never mind, Never Mind, because Linda Kohn ’73 has likely heard every mushroom joke there is.
More than once.
She’s a mycologist. Her expertise is the evolutionary biology and systematics of fungal pathogens, and recently, in the study of development and proliferation of drug resistance in yeasts.
And her contributions to agriculture are considerable, since many of the pathogens that she studies affect crops – for example, white rot of beans, brown rot in stone fruits, stem rot of canola, botrytis in berries. This valuable work established her reputation as pre-eminent in the world.
That’s part of the reason that on May 10 she received the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) 2014 Outstanding Alumna Award during CALS’ annual Alumni and Friends Award Dinner at the Davis Center on campus. Kohn was one of three new Outstanding Alumni that evening: Louise Calderwood and James Anderson; New Achievers Shaun Gilpin and James Henley; Outstanding Senior Hillary Laggis and Sinclair Cup winner the late Kenneth “Stew” Gibson. Kohn was recognized “because she distinguished herself internationally as a mycologist who excels in research, instruction and leadership,” CALS Dean Tom Vogelmann said in presenting her with the award – a hand-turned and inscribed Vermont maple bowl.
More recently, Kohn’s research led her to realize that fungal yeasts are important organisms in order to understand the serious problem of microbial resistance to drugs. Her first studies dealt with Candida albicans, a yeast that causes diseases in as many as 58 species of wild and domesticated animals and humans. Subsequently she expanded studies to the common bakers’ yeast, Saccharomyces cerevistae.
What this means is not just that fungi exposed to antibiotic drugs become resistant to them, but that by focusing on the evolution, selection, adaptation and gene expression related to this trait, “she has greatly advanced the understanding of the threat of drug resistance to modern medicine and agriculture,” said Vogelmann, himself a botanist. Her newer work is a collaboration with another UVM alumnus, James Anderson. See related story. As enthusiastic adopters of whole-genome DNA sequencing, she and Anderson now view the process of speciation – a major interest in both their careers – as it evolves in laboratory yeasts.
A Great Education Starts at Home
Flashback. Linda Kohn grew up in Burlington. After two years at Sarah Lawrence College, she enrolled in her hometown university and received her bachelor of science in independent agricultural studies from the University of Vermont in 1973. So coming back to UVM on May 10, 2014 to receive the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences 2014 Outstanding Alumna Award was an especially poignant return trip. It evoked her college years and the summers between graduate study semesters, which she spent on the UVM campus teaching field mycology. Her mom, Viola Kohn, lives in the area and she has many Vermont friends.
Linda Kohn earned her Ph.D. at Cornell University in 1979, where faculty there called her “one of (renowned professor) Dick Korf’s most outstanding students.” She was assistant professor of botany at Clemson University in South Carolina from 1979-1981. She came to the University of Toronto at Mississauga in 1981 and worked her way from post-doc. to assistant professor as a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) University Research Fellow in 1985 to full professor in 1995.
Her research at the University of Toronto has been funded continuously and significantly by the NSERC – a clear indication that her work is well regarded by her peers. Her findings have been published in more than 70 journals including the prestigious “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” “Nature,” “Genetics” and others. That these works have been cited more than 3,000 times indicates how important her papers are to her field.
She teaches Introductory a freshman seminar "Think Like a Scientist", Fungal Biology and Biodiversity and has advised 13 graduate students two post-docs and numerous undergraduates.
As a leader on the executive board of the Mycological Society of America, she brought the Society’s annual meeting to the University of Vermont in 2000, showcasing both her alma mater and Burlington. She has held many offices in that organization over the years, and as its president, moved its journal, “Mycologia” to electronic publication – a formidable accomplishment. Early in her career Kohn was flagged for greatness with the Alexoupolos Prize in 1989. She was named a Mycological Society of America Fellow in 2004 and last year she received this organization’s highest honor, “Distinguished Mycologist.” She is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
She is a sought after speaker, delivering papers and leading workshops. Her passport must be full, since these include: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand and the United States. Kohn has played an important role in the training of mycologists world wide. Many many people have been exposed to mycology through her research, publications, speaking engagements and workshops.
The testimonies are countless of people who credit Kohn for setting them on a career path in science and started a lifelong fascination with studying and appreciating fungi and making careers of it.
A Great Career Includes Returning Home
For example, UVM alumnus Michael Milgroom ‘78 who earned his bachelor of arts in botany wrote, “Linda was my first mycology teacher the summer of 1977. Her dedication as a teacher and her enthusiasm about fungi were major factors that set me on a path of studying fungal biology and plant pathology.” Milgroom is now a Cornell University plant pathology professor.
That prompted Kohn to recall her first UVM teachers and their influences, “My first biology course was with Phil Lintilhac. I was erratic but probably a pretty smart kid,” she says looking back at her twenty-something self. Her own list of influences reads like a Who’s Who in UVM botany – Tom Sproston, Hub Voglemann, Bud Etherton and Fred Taylor – the latter she credits with giving her “bedrock botany training.” It wasn’t hype when she looked from the podium to the UVM president and College dean below and credited “UVM for making my career what it has been. This means a lot to me, after all these years.”
And then she lifted her head looking straight into the eyes of scores of seniors at tables in the back of the room, she said, “UVM could set me on course in life, it cwill do that, and so much more for you.”