Q&A with Carly Hester

Read more stories about students’ experiences in SRIP 2022.

Carly Hester is an NCSSM online student from Sylva, North Carolina. She attends Smoky Mountain High School and is part of the Summer Mentorship Program as part of Summer Research and Innovation Programs and engaged in mycology research with her mentor in their lab at Duke University.

What got you interested in this program? 

I live in the mountains, in Sylva, and we really don’t have a lot of research opportunities. 

And I am really interested in doing research. And I just wanted to, you know, make myself a little bit more competitive and gain some skills, and this was an amazing way to do that.

Can you talk to me about what you’re doing this summer?

Sure. So my mentor did a really cool competition experiment between different types of fungi and how they interact with each other within a host. 

And he doesn’t exactly have quantitative data from that yet, so he was able to save all the roots and all the things from it. And my piece of that is basically collecting that quantitative data. So I get to use Q-PCR to show the relative abundance of all the fungi and the roots of this experiment. 

You have to have species-specific primers to make sure that you’re identifying your target species. So I worked on testing all of those experimental primers and making sure that they are indeed species-specific. 

That’s actually what took the longest time.

Can you give me a general overview of your day-to-day?

I guess it kind of depends on what I was able to do yesterday, but something that I do just about every day would be to set up [molecular techniques like] PCR and…ITS sequencing. 

I’m usually either taking things out of the PCR machine and pouring a gel to run the gel, and putting it in the gel dock, and doing that whole thing, or if I don’t get good results the day before, I have to go back from square one yeah and extract DNA again from all my mushrooms and try the whole process over again.

Have you run into any obstacles in your research and if so, how have you dealt with them?

Yeah. So definitely, I think the biggest obstacle I noticed has been time. I’m running around the lab doing things – so many things at once. But, I guess just kind of learning what I can do while a process is going on.   For example, the PCR takes 2 hours. I’ve gotten good at timing out when I can put it in so then I can go to lunch and I’m not just having random idle time. 

Learning how to maximize my time and like when I can pour the gel and getting the timing aspect so I’m not wasting time because I find myself running out of it.

Are there any resources that you use when you come across a problem?

When I run into problems, I have my little book that I log it all in, and I’ll show it to my mentor. And I’ll say. “OK, so this is what’s going on; I think it’s this, but I kind of need some help because I don’t know where to go yet.”   And he’s been great to sit down and be like, “Oh yeah, I think that you’re on the right track” or like, “Maybe not so much; try this.”

What got you interested in this kind of fungal research?

I’ve always been really interested in the environment, and I feel like we have a lot to learn about plants and especially fungi. 

What’s been the best part about this experience?

I would say just all of the things that I’ve gotten to do. 

My mentor has been really great to not just help us with a great project, but also get the full lens of mycology here at Duke…We’re working with a researcher from Boston today, and helping him with his research. We’ve gotten to learn from our postdoc Lotus Lofgren, and she’s taught us some really cool computer things and software and stuff that we can use. Just all kinds of different lab skills; it’s been great.

How has participating in Mentorship and SRIP changed your plans for the next academic year and your plans for after you graduate?

I would definitely say that it puts Duke very much at the top of my list for colleges. I really love it here, but I think I also know more that I want to study biology for sure in college. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. Like, I knew I had an interest, but I wasn’t, you know, set on it. So I definitely know that I want to study biology now.

Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you think is important for the NCSSM community to know?

It’s a great program. It really is. This is not something that a lot of high schoolers get to do. At least I don’t get the sense that most high schoolers get to do this. So, I think it’s a great opportunity, especially since it’s free and it’s just great. I can’t say that enough.