Discussing Medical Mycology and the Future of the Field with Dr. Thomas Volk

Discussing Medical Mycology and the Future of the Field with Dr. Thomas Volk

Dr. Volk is a well-known mycologist who received a heart transplant. He takes two fungal-derived medications to sustain his health. Today, he teaches us about medical mycology and discusses his thoughts on the future of the field. 

Podcast Topics

  • Dr. Tom Volk’s Fungi website, the internet, mycology, and marketing in the ’90s 
  • Volk’s education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
  • Medical mycology and fungi that infect people
  • Volk’s health history and heart transplant experiences
  • How fungi have helped Volk’s life post-transplant via fungi-derived drugs
  • The courses that Volk teaches at UWL
  • The etymology of the words “fungi” and “mushroom”
  • Dr. Thomas Volk’s poem, “The Fungi and the Dung”
  • Volk’s favorite fungi research
  • How medical mycology concerning medicinal mushrooms needs more data
  • Breaking News: Dr. Thomas Volk will begin mycology lectures online
  • Mycological research: penicillin, plastic degradation, drug discovery
  • The future of medical mycology and what is needed in the mycology field


    Meet Dr. Thomas Volk, Mycologist, Professor

    Image from alieward ologies 

    Today, we are delighted to welcome Dr. Thomas Volk, one of the most established mycologists in the United States. On the show, Volk talks about the academic myco-culture and how much it has changed over the years. He also speaks about the capacities of studying mycology at an academic institution. Listen to his journey of getting a heart transplant and how fungi have assisted his health throughout his life post-surgery. 

    In this blog post, you’ll read about Dr. Tom Volk’s educational experience, his health history, and fungi in the medical mycology world. 

    Dr. Thomas Volk’s Educational Experience

    Volk is a well-known mycologist who received a Ph.D. in botany with a minor in genetics from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is currently teaching courses such as “General Mycology, Medical Mycology, Plant-Microbe Interactions, Organismal Biology, and Latin & Green for Scientists” at UWL (3).

    Moreover, Volk has mentored hundreds of students in the mycology field; 23 of which are graduate students with “24 and 25 on the way” as of the date of the podcast show. He has taught in 35 states as well as internationally. He’s also spoken at mycology events throughout North America and has been a feature on a TEDx Talk at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

    Getting a Heart Transplant

    Next, Dr. Thomas Volk has an impressive health history. 

    To begin, in 1997, he was diagnosed with a special type of cancer called Hodgkin's disease. It is cancer that develops within the lymph system, which “is a part of your immune system” (7). He underwent radiation for 55 days, which led to his cancer going away. 

    Despite that, in 2001, Volk began having heart problems. He was prescribed drugs because of congestive heart failure and arrhythmias. Then, in May of 2022, he received a defibrillator that began to shock him to keep his heart beating. Volk shares that it was like a horse kicking him in the chest. Over time, however, his heart began to function poorly. 

    Then, in 2006, he joined “the list” to receive a new heart. At the time, he was very weak and pale; his heart was barely beating. When he got the call that there was a heart available for him, the medical team prepared him for surgery soon after. The heart transplant procedure lasted only three hours. The next day, he was able to walk and he felt immediately better. 

    Since his heart transplant, Dr. Tom Volk has been taking a lot of medication such as immunosuppressant drugs to keep his new heart beating. 

    Fungi Medications That Keep His Heart Beating

    It’s been nearly 14 years since his surgery. Dr. Tom Volk has been sustaining his new heart with lots of medications; two of which are derived from mushrooms. 

    One, Cyclosporine from the fungi species Tolypocladium inflatum, and two, Mycophenolate from Penicillium brevicompactum. The latter is closely related to the blue cheese fungus. 

    The two medications of fungal origin serve as anti-rejection drugs for the heart to stay active within Volk’s body. Surprisingly, Volk continues to teach mycology, even with his sensitive immune system, in labs where the possibility of infection is present. 

    Medical Mycology with Dr. Thomas Volk

    Dr. Volk teaches Medical Mycology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He studies and lectures about mushroom poisoning, mycotoxins, and allergies to fungi as well. 

    In the show, we learn that many fungi infect people. 

    Fungi That Infects People’s Bodies

    Infections can be caused by fungi including ringworm, jock itch, and athlete’s foot. Moreover, there are “150 or so species that regularly cause human disease.” Yeast infection is the most common as ¾ of women in the United States get one once in their lifetime. 

    Dr. Volk goes on to share that the most frightening fungi strain to him is the Aspergillus fumigatus species. It normally lives in the air, however, if it gets into the respiratory system it “grows in giant fungus balls in the lungs.” 

    He mentions how his student’s Petri dishes will begin to cultivate the strain if the plates are left open. Frighteningly, the fungus grows well in immune-suppressed folks, like Volk. So, during his lectures, he and his students must be extremely careful by frequently washing their hands to avoid infection as Aspergillus fumigatus species as it is “nearly impossible to kill.”

    To learn more about mushrooms that grow in the body, listen to the podcast starting at the timestamp 13:28. Volk discusses the most common fungi strains that fruit in the human body in detail.

    The White Areas in Medical Mycology

    Dr. Volk mentions two white areas within the mycology field. One downside to the medical world in regards to fungi is that doctors today don’t have formal training in medical mycology. Second, medicinal mushrooms have a lot of claims but not a lot of research and data to help support these claims. 

    A consequence of untrained medical professionals in medical mycology results in delayed diagnosis. Not only that but certain medication treatments may feed the fungus infecting people's bodies rather than getting rid of them. Antibiotics may kill the bacteria in the body, but not the fungi. 

    Secondly, the other white area in the medical mycology field is medicinal mushrooms. Even though mushrooms have been used as a medicine in some cultures for thousands of years, there is little research data to back it up. Dr. Volk states there are a lot of claims, but he wants to see more research. Specifically, he believes that more double-blind studies will help mushrooms get accepted as medicine in society.

    Dr. Volk doesn't take any medicinal mushrooms because they are immune-stimulating. In his case, his body needs immune-suppressing drugs for his heart. So, the two fungi-derived drugs mentioned above are how fungi support his life. 

    Dr. Tom Volk’s Mycology Course Offerings 

    Finally, Volk calls for more education on mycology to further the field. Luckily, the professor shared some exciting news. He is going to begin offering mycology lectures online! 

    If you’re interested in studying mycology, then be sure to keep an eye out for Dr. Volk’s online lectures. Your participation in the field could help to further science and medical mycology. 

    To “glean more of [Dr. Volks] teachings” be sure to dig into his Fungi Website.


    Podcast Show Notes & Works Cited

    1. Tom Volk’s Fungi Website: http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/ 
    2. TEDx: “A Change of Heart: My Transplant Experience | Thomas Volk | TEDxUWLaCrosse.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zU6mmix04PI
    3. Thomas Volk UWL Profile: https://www.uwlax.edu/profile/tvolk/ 
    4. Quote: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/9178-chance-favors-the-prepared-mind 
    5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basidiomycota  
    6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482464/ 
    7. https://medlineplus.gov/hodgkinlymphoma.html 


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