GWU Undergraduate Research Scholar Studies Mushroom and Fungus Species Along Broad River

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Luke Gazak ’18 Gains Valuable Experience for Graduate School 

Luke Gazak, a senior biology major, poses in the woods next to a mushroom specimen while holding a notebook that he used while completing a survey of mushrooms and fungus at the Broad River for his undergraduate research project.
Luke Gazak, a senior biology major, completed a survey of mushrooms and fungus at the Broad River for his undergraduate research project.   Photo by GWU student Samuelle Grove

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—As a hunter and fisherman, Luke Gazak ’18 respects the environment. The Holly Springs, N.C., native’s love for the outdoors and observing plants and animals led him to pursue a biology degree at Gardner-Webb University. In the future, he’d like to teach in a university setting, sharing his knowledge with students and conducting research that encourages environmental responsibility.

Over the summer, Gazak gained valuable experience for graduate school while completing a research project through the GWU Undergraduate Research Scholars program. One of 13 students who received a grant to conduct research, he worked 40 hours a week for five weeks on his project. His faculty mentor was Dr. Joseph Oyugi, professor of biology. Gazak will present his research at the North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. He also hopes to present his findings to students and faculty at GWU.

The first lesson Gazak learned about conducting research was flexibility. “Originally, I wanted to do a population assessment of the black bullhead catfish at the Broad River,” he related. “As we began scouting out some portions of the river, we somewhat jokingly said how cool it would be to survey all of the mushrooms and fungus at the river considering we must have passed a million different species. After days of torrential downpours and the water levels at the river being higher than I have ever seen, we knew it was time to find a new topic that wouldn’t drown us. With that in mind, we both recalled the mushroom survey idea, which turned out to be a fantastic fit for a project.”

He enjoyed working with Oyugi and appreciated his mentoring style. “He wasn’t constantly looking over my shoulder or micromanaging, rather, he guided me in the right direction, allowing me to figure things out on my own,” Gazak observed. “Dr. Oyugi has a wealth of knowledge especially in ecology and the research methods appropriate for my project, and it was extremely helpful. He showed me the techniques and the right way to do things and sent me on my way. It forced me to work proactively, and in a manner that I would expect to see in graduate school.”

Gazak set up his study by marking off two survey areas on opposite sides of the Broad River. “Once all species were identified and the number of encounters were added up, I could then analyze the spatial differences, species richness, distribution, and determine the overall populations of the survey areas,” Gazak explained. “The color, size, grouping, and overall characteristics were astounding between species, and it never ceased to amaze me from start to finish. The biggest challenges that I faced throughout this research were in identifying species, and occasionally, even finding mushrooms or fungus. Fungi thrive in moist environments, and on dry days it was difficult to collect data.”

He also learned how to manage his time between being in the field, the lab, and compiling data. “I found that sticking to a schedule can make life so much easier as opposed to flying by the seat of your pants and expecting to put in the right amount of time,” he shared. “This lesson can be applied to studying in graduate school and working a future job. I highly encourage undergraduates with aspirations for bettering themselves and their education to involve themselves in undergraduate research and enjoy the process.”

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Located in the North Carolina foothills, Gardner-Webb University is a private, Christian, liberal arts university that prepares students to become critical thinkers, effective leaders and compassionate servants. Emphasizing a strong student-centered experience and rigorous academics, Gardner-Webb is a place where Christian character meets global engagement. Ignite your future at