Flinders’ resident fungi expert Dr Michael Taylor spoke with us about his recent article published in The Conversation, and he explained how a trio of mischievous goats is creating havoc with his at-home experiments.
What is your role at Flinders?
I’m an adjunct academic, supervising higher degree by research students, which helps me maintain a link between research and my primary role of providing consulting services for WSP Australia in the area of occupational hygiene, biological risk management and hazardous materials. As a technical discipline, occupational hygiene is quite understudied in an academic capacity in Australia, so maintaining my link to research and students allows valuable research outcomes to be directly linked to field-based applications. In this capacity, I supervise higher degree by research students as they gain workplace and real-world exposure to emerging and novel methods that assess risk and improve health and safety.
Tell us about your research.
My particular research area is mycology, which is the study of fungi – another critically understudied area! My focus is on the detection, management and risk assessment of fungal growth in buildings. This ranges from the detection, quantification and identification of fungi using novel methods, to assessing materials for their ability to be degraded by microbes, and making human health risk assessments after potential exposures to fungi and their metabolites.
I’m also interested in the remediation of buildings and materials after water damage, with items such as artworks and artefacts being of critical importance. I like understanding what works in domestic settings such as houses, as well as all the complexities of restoring buildings with complex or sensitive uses, such as hospitals, where small amounts of fungi can have serious consequences for people who are immune-compromised.
What do you love most about your work?
I love that rarely do I look at a problem and see a single clear target. So many workplace exposure risks can be boiled down to a single value which you’re either above or below. Health risk assessment to biological hazards, in a building setting, with different end users always requires a broader look at the problems present, and a critical evaluation of the options available and the pathways to resolution. Fungi particularly tend to be an emotive topic, with Toxic Black Mould being a concept that even non-experts seem to have an opinion on, and so the clear and accurate communication of risk becomes increasingly important in my discipline.
How did you get into this field?
I kind of fell into this specialisation. My PhD was on pathogens in the built environment, which included an investigation of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease in cooling towers. I came to love microbial ecology, but realised that fungi were rather neglected in scientific literature. I started to get more interested in fungi’s role in ecosystems, their ability to degrade a wide range of natural and synthetic compounds and their potential use in biotechnology. I completed a post-doc with Safework SA on fungi in buildings and co-wrote the guidance document ‘Understanding and managing occupational health risks from fungal contamination in indoor environments’. I then looked at using fungi to break down herbicide residues in soil, and using fungi as biocontrol agents, but left the university system to start a gourmet mushroom farm and my own consulting business. I was then made an offer to provide consulting services more widely in my current industry role.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I was engaged by Heritage Victoria to provide expert legal advice on a heritage-listed property damaged by fire, water and fungi. The legislation for damage to heritage-listed properties had just been rewritten and the advice I provided for the state formed the first test of the application of these new instruments. This involved inspecting the property, producing expert witness reports, and defending the work in both heritage council hearings and VCAT proceedings. The outcome looked very likely to be decided in favour of the state of Victoria, however the building mysteriously burnt down a second time and when I left, involvement with the case it had become a criminal investigation! It was a very formative consolidation of both the academic and practical skills I’d developed, working in a high-pressure environment as other experts picked holes in my work – which is something I quite enjoyed!
How do you spend your spare time?
My wife and I have 4.5 hectares in the Adelaide Hills that we are slowly restoring. We’ve rescued a hidden creek from a blackberry thicket and we’re starting to make the land productive again. I’ve just planted a small apple orchard and I’m hoping to start experimenting with natural microflora to produce unique fermented products – provided we can keep our three miniature goats away from the fruit! I’ve also restored an old anvil and blacksmithing tools, and as a creative outlet I’m starting to turn some of the old scrap I’ve pulled out of the creek into artwork and usable tools.