Marshall Scholar finalist Katy Ayers explores fungi

Katy Ayers
Katy Ayers

Washington State University Pullman senior Katy Ayers, a bioengineering major minoring in biochemistry and mathematics, is the latest finalist for a Marshall Scholarship to study in the United Kingdom.

Ayers is WSU’s third Marshall finalist in 11 years, said April Seehafer, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program, part of the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement in the provost’s office. Marshall Scholars from the U.S. are eligible for one or two years of graduate study at any British university in any subject.

“Ten years ago, I was actually working as a gas station attendant, but through college education and opportunities like the Marshall, I’ve been able to earn my seat at the table,” said Ayers. “That table is filled with countless people who have invested in me.

“I’m at a nexus right now between my undergraduate years and the sky. I can’t wait to see what following my passion for learning will bring next.”

Ayers’s goal is to earn a Ph.D. in metabolic engineering focused on mycology, the study of fungi, and continue to explore the use of fungal enzymes to produce novel antimicrobials to improve health outcomes around the globe. She also hopes to develop myco-engineering as a subdiscipline of bioengineering, and to mentor future researchers.

“Katy’s academic and research pursuits at WSU prepare her in unique and substantial ways to become a leader among the next generation of scientists,” said Elizabeth Chilton, provost and executive vice president, and WSU Pullman chancellor. “We are proud of her for her Marshall accomplishment, and we are grateful to the numerous faculty and staff who have supported her as teachers and mentors.”

Pursuing research is, in fact, why Ayers chose to transfer to WSU from her Nebraska community college. She was drawn by honey bee and pollinator research associated with the Department of Entomology. As a student researcher, Ayers has explored the use of a medicinal fungus to hold together agricultural waste materials grown in molds to make bee “hotels.” Moving from an environmental focus to human health, her most recent research involves protein engineering and studying protein binding.

Earlier this year, Ayers became WSU’s first recipient in the environment category of another distinguished scholarship — the Udall — which was a nod to her research pursuits.

Her research also earned her a top crimson award in the applied sciences category at the 2023 Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SURCA). Her SURCA poster was titled, “Mushroom mechanics: An analysis of fungal biomaterials for wild bee conservation.”

Ayers’s fascination with fungi began at Central Community College in Columbus, Neb., where she grew a living 7’6”-long canoe from fungus, papier-mâché molds, an inner wooden skeleton, and a hammock. It floats and sprouts mushrooms when wet. The canoe made waves around the world. It was on display at the Nebraska State Fair for years, was featured in national and international news shows, and won Ayers recognition by Guinness World Records as well as Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

In support of her academic and research pursuits, Ayers is a MARC Scholar and a TRIO SSS member.

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