Ballad for Lorna

I love plants like teenage girls love Harry Styles. My friends—who turn the volume to blasting when Harry comes on the radio—patiently listen to me daydream about whatever my newest botanical crush is—mushroom music on YouTube, maybe, or air plants in the Peruvian desert. Someday, my friends joke, I’ll stop introducing myself as Sophia with a “ph” and start introducing myself as Sophia with a PhD. I laugh when they say this, but there’s a sense of trepidation about my future career I can’t shake.

My fears about venturing into a STEM field start with something small—high, actually. For a long time, I’ve been embarrassed about my voice. I love to sing; I’m a lyric soprano, which means that I reach a high G, and with training, I can be heard over an orchestra. My voice sits at a naturally high pitch, even more so when I’m excited. My excitement about plants, combined with my Italian-Colombian background, means that when I talk about my research, my voice rings loud and bright—you could even say piping.

In an environmental science class I took this year, I was comforted to find other girls sitting with me, but I soon discovered I was the only one brave enough to speak. My teacher was a barrel-chested, deep-voiced man of forty whose presence seemed to demand respect. Our class was dominated by the tenor and bass voices of my male classmates, who—even though they were younger, less accomplished, or less knowledgeable than I was—spoke with a resonance and authority I seemed unable to echo. I took to lifting my height-adjustable swivel chair to its highest setting to combat the sense of invisibility. Every time I did speak, my high voice whistled through the classroom, marking me an easy target. Hearing myself talk, I was reminded of short stories I’d read long ago of histrionic Victorian housewives, reduced to hysterics by frivolities. In the classroom, I saw myself as that woman with that voice, a voice you couldn’t wait to shut away in an attic in case she burned the house down.

I now know I was not the only one feeling cowed because of my voice. In 2006, a group of researchers analyzed three separate studies to understand how we react to other’s voices—specifically, how the femininity or masculinity of someone’s voice, regardless of gender, affects the way we perceive them or stereotype them. Higher voices, like mine, were associated with femininity, regardless of whether the voice in question was male or female: men with high voices can be perceived as feminine, and women with low voices can be perceived as masculine. In 2021, these findings were reconfirmed: a paper in the journal Social Psychology found that higher pitched-voices were associated with femininity and likability, no matter the gender; high-pitched female voices were assumed to be less competent.

In STEM fields, this means my high voice marks me as an outsider. My womanhood brands me an incompetent one.

Her name was Lorna. In shaky, low-resolution YouTube videos of her taken a few years before her death, she seems frail and out of place. She speaks in a thin, fluty voice, more suited to offering you scones and tea than to lecturing rooms of world-renowned scientists—but her discoveries in the field of mycology, the study of mushrooms, transformed the academic world.

Dr. Casselton, as she was more widely known, studied fungi. She is most well known for her papers on Coprinopsis cinerea, a small edible mushroom commonly known as the gray shag. C. cinerea is short and fragile-looking, with a ghostly-white stem and a frilled gray cap that makes it look like a goth cocktail umbrella or a histrionic Victorian housewife. But what’s fascinating about C. cinerea and similar kinds of mushrooms goes beyond physical appearance.

This type of mushroom is called a heterothallic mushroom, which means that two fruiting bodies—what we generally think of as two mushrooms—are needed in order for the mushroom to mate and propagate. In other words, mushroom sex is a two-body endeavor. The only requirement is that the two mating types are compatible.

In humans, and indeed most mammals, sexual reproduction is restricted to two such types, male and female. This means we have roughly a 50 percent chance to form viable offspring with someone we stumble across in the wild. Not so for C. cinerea and its kin. They’ve figured out a way to up their chances of reproduction to close to 100 percent. Their strategy: more is more. Increase the number of mating types, and your chances at compatibility skyrocket. That’s how mushrooms like Schizophyllum commune, a mushroom in the same division as C. cinerea, end up with over 23,000 sexes.

It was Dr. Casselton who really began to examine the mechanics of fungal sex. Mushrooms like C. cinerea and S. commune operate through a tetrapolar mating system: they combine two mating loci, A and B, to generate a new mating type. In practice, this is just as complicated as it sounds—mushrooms play fast and loose. In principle, however, it is a fairly simple system.

Genetic material is stored on chromosomes—spools of DNA wound tightly in misshapen X’s. As abstract as they may seem to us, chromosomes are physical objects, so the genes encoded into DNA can be found at specific locations on the chromosome. In genetics, this location is called a locus, loci if there are more than one chromosome location. Loci provide a shorthand for specific genes—but some of these genes have multiple types: for example, a gene for hair color might have a brown type, a black type, a red type, or a blond type. These types of the same gene are called alleles. So, when it comes to tetrapolar mating, all a mushroom does is combine two genes, A and B, both of which can have several types. Once you consider the number of variables—C. cinerea has over 240 A and B types each—the mind-bogglingly high number of mating types becomes believable. Dr. Casselton cared enough to prove it.

Dr. Casselton’s titles and accomplishments were innumerable: Fellow of the Royal Society, member of the Academia Europea, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Honorary Doctor of Science from University College London, Queen Mary College, and University of London—the list goes on and on. She was widely regarded as a worldwide authority on fungi. Her success, however, was unprecedented: she and her sister were the first in her family to attend university—her parents owned a small farm and retail shop that sold seeds and produce. She earned her PhD in 1964, when there were almost ten times as many men earning doctorates as women.

There’s a passage in one of her more famous publications, “The Origin of Multiple Mating Types in the Model Mushrooms Coprinopsis cinerea and Schizophyllum commune,” that I find revealing. Having just reached the end of a discussion on strategies for creating multiple mating types, she provides a brief summary of current literature on the subject—the accepted hypothesis she strongly disagreed with but still had to reference. “Classical genetic studies suggested that the multiple mating types of [these mushrooms] arose by gene duplication and mutation,” she begins, alluding to Darwin’s first drivers for evolution. Mutation—random, unprecedented changes in DNA that are passed on from a parent organism to its child—was originally thought to spur evolution on its own. It alone was responsible for the changes, coherent and systemic though they may be, that transformed us from apes to humans. This hypothesis was eventually discredited. The random nature of mutation meant that there must have been other additional forces at play, which there were: environmental pressures, bottleneck events, selectivity—the list is long.

Through the gritted teeth of the academic lexicon, Dr. Casselton goes on to air her frustrations about this hypothesis being applied to mushroom mating types: “Considerable evolutionary effort has been expended to evolve genes with as little as 50% DNA homology between alleles,” she writes. Here she is alluding to the mechanics of A and B loci that allow for such an enormous amount of variability, but it’s not the scientific content of the passage that gets me, fascinating though it is—it’s the snippy clause at the beginning, the “considerable evolutionary effort.” “Why are you chalking up this intricately crafted method of mating to chance,” she seems to be saying, “when so much effort was put into it?”

In that moment, she’s not just talking about mushrooms. She’s talking about people like me and her—girls who weren’t meant to get this far. Girls with high voices. 

My father has been growing yeast in our cupboards for as long as I’ve been singing, which is to say, since the beginning of time. He keeps his yeast in half-unscrewed jars in order to allow air to pass through the fermentation grounds—but, as I later found out, the growing pressure from the fermenting yeast also forced air out through the gaps between the cap and the rim, making a dampened whistling noise. As a child, I remember wandering into the kitchen, humming, only to stop at that mysteriously persistent high-pitched squeal. The revelation that my father’s sour-dough starters were singing with me was startling, but perhaps not unprecedented.

Last year, I stumbled across my first mushroom music. Using recordings of the vibrations made when the mycelium—the mushroom’s main body, which remains underground like a living root network—moves through the earth, musicians were able to make audio we can listen to by turning up the pitch to frequencies we can hear. The first time I heard a recording, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Instead of the wet whistle I so often heard in my kitchen, or the crackling ambient sounds I had expected, I was enveloped in an electropop fantasy: rhythmic beats, like a heartbeat; notes sliding up and down a scale like a DJ’s pitch fader; percussive pops and synthy notes. I even discovered a video of one of my favorite mycologists—Merlin Sheldrake—improvising a piano-and-mushroom-audio duet.

Sometimes, when I think about my future as a woman in STEM, I feel like I’m a child in my father’s kitchen again. I see myself as a lowly life form with high-pitched, plaintive squeal, an irritant of no consequence, and I wonder if I’ll be trapped in my own metaphorical jar. To this day, women—particularly Black and Latina women—face discrimination, from elementary school to college to their workforce years. In STEM fields, women are widely considered to be less hireable and less competent. Those in “hard science” fields like computer science, engineering, and physics face more pronounced discrimination because of these fields’ perceived difficulty—and therefore their masculinity—while women interested in “softer” fields such as biology or nursing are assumed to be programmed to care about living things.,

It hurts me that my love for Dr. Casselton’s mushrooms is attributed to my mating type. In this way, I too am chalked up to evolutionary chance.

Over her lifetime, Dr. Casselton wrote over a hundred papers on mushroom mating types. It was this dedication to her field that gained her the recognition she so deserved. Her research, shared through the pitchless, gender-free voice of her writing, propelled her to success, in the tradition of Victorian women such as Lousia May Alcott (known as A. M. Barnard), Mary Ann Evans (known as George Elliot), Amantine Lucile Aurore Dudevant (known as George Sand), and countless other women throughout time. In the same way, I could have shared my love for the gray shag’s bone-white stems and ashy caps with my environmental science class without fearing what my teacher and classmates would think of my voice.

I think of Lorna’s voice in those shakily filmed videos, how she must have felt at the podium, listening to her own voice echo across the lecture halls. I have sung before audiences of a hundred, five hundred. My voice has echoed bright and loud through chapels, concert halls, parking lots—but in classrooms, at poster presentations, on podiums, I find myself suffocated by shame. The femininity in my lyric soprano’s voice is expected; the femininity in my research-presentation-voice is jarring: a ploy for attention, a diversity card, an irritant.

So I replay Lorna’s lectures with the volume turned up to blasting. Through Lorna’s voice, I am left in awe of the breathtaking game of roulette that takes place every time a new mushroom is formed. Through Lorna’s voice, I see alleles spin like numbers in a slot machine. Through Lorna’s voice, I see a new mushroom burst into being like a newborn sun. Through Lorna’s voice, I see a spore fly out to the world beyond. Through Lorna’s voice, I confront my hatred of my own voice.

I think of Dr. Lorna Casselton, a first-generation country girl at the center of the academic eye, who, despite her reliance on the neutrality of her writing, was unafraid to share her love of mushrooms in her voice. Through her, I see a world where one’s sex and gender identity is something to marvel at, to be inspired by and dedicated to—a world where Lorna’s mushrooms and I can sing an electropop ballad in high, unyieldingly loud tones, fearless.

“Ballad for Lorna” is the sixth of six pieces in ROOTED, which won the Gold Medal Portfolio Award for writing sponsored by the New York Times in the 2023 Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards.

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