Lifestyle

Never too late: how a retired teacher’s ‘fungi hobby’ led to her finding 20 new species

My first career was a long and happy one. I was a high school teacher.

I started teaching back in 1962 at a lovely school in London. It was a wonderful introduction into teaching. Then I married and went up to Birmingham and I taught senior level biology and general science at a high school for girls. I stopped teaching when our daughter was born and then we came to Australia. After my son became old enough, when he was about five or six, I decided I would go back to teaching. I started at Woodlands girls school in Adelaide in 1974, and I stayed there for 25 years until the school was closed down.

Becoming a specialist researcher was a challenge … It’s something that you can’t do by halves
It was very emotional and sad when the school closed. It took a while for me to recover. By then, I had turned 58 and the syllabus for biology was about to change. I didn’t want to start again, at a new school, with a new syllabus. Some people I knew who had retired said: “Give it six months and don’t make any major decisions.”

So after the school was closed down, I took it easy in a sense. However, I kept in touch with a botanist at the State Herbarium I had come to know, and started going there and working on fungi. When I did my undergraduate degree in London, we had an excellent lecturer in mycology, the study of fungi, and I had thought then that I might continue with mycology, but I didn’t. However I retained a love of fungi. I sort of parked that interest while teaching. I had some control over the year 11 biology syllabus, however, and I decided that I would cover the whole biota, the bacteria, plants, animals and of course fungi in a year.

While I was teaching, I was involved in Fungimap, which had been started by Dr Tom May in 1995. It is a national society which sets out to map Australian fungi, but also to educate people about what fungi are and what they do. Being a teacher, I quite enjoyed that. I always enjoyed going out to the field, looking at what we could find, finding out about it and, when with others, enjoying their company. I really enjoyed teaching and the girls quite liked my having fungi as a hobby.

But after teaching I was looking forward to doing something on my own. Mycology lends itself quite well to being secluded: you go out, collect, bring things back, do a lot of research. I really enjoy that very much.

Even though fungi had been a hobby, moving from being a biology teacher to becoming a specialist researcher was a challenge, and I had to read and research a lot. It’s something that you can’t do by halves. I work pretty much every day, five days a week. I’ve been doing that since 2002 when, in my 60s, I was made a research associate at the State Herbarium of South Australia. I’ve enjoyed the discipline. I have slowed down lately. In my 60s and into my 70s I worked in the evenings, I don’t any more – or very rarely.

During the “fungal season” from late May until late August I go out into the field, bush and forest and collect fungi, documenting them, preserving them and depositing them into the herbarium. I have made almost 5,000 collections. I have found probably around 20 new species, but each requires an enormous amount of work to describe fully. My husband does the molecular work, which is now needed when describing new species. I have described three new species, one new genus, and also written papers on rare or interesting species.

What I like particularly is enjoying their beauty – some of them have the most beautiful spores
I have become expert in a particular group of fungi called the ascomycetes, especially the cup and disc fungi which are sometimes called “sac fungi”. Most of the disc fungi are quite pretty, but some of them are rather ugly. They’ve become known as “Pam’s little blobs”. Although they all look rather alike, I like to give things respect and identity. They’re out there doing something really important. What I like particularly is enjoying their beauty – some of them have the most beautiful spores. I love looking at them.

One of the things that I enjoy about being older is not caring so much about what people think about me. I would ask people in their 50s at a career crossroads, firstly, what interests you? Think about what makes the tingles go down your spine, and do that. If you enjoy it, you’re going to be much better at it. If you do that, you’ll find people who enjoy the same thing, so your social life will benefit as well.

So find out about what interests you. If you haven’t any real background in that topic or subject, seek out people who do know about it – you’ll generally find there are people who will help. You may get knocked back by one or two people, but don’t be knocked down. Remember that if you’re only 58, you’ve still got quite a long way to go! You may as well spend those twilight years doing what you enjoy most.