Lafayette Frederick, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Biology
Background: My discipline is mycology with an emphasis on fungal diseases of plants, spore development of fungi, and the systematics and ecology of acellular slime molds (myxomycetes). I am currently a visiting scientist in the Department of Biology at Tuskegee University
Question 1: Why did you become a scientist?
Answer: During my pre-college years I lived on various cotton farms in the southeast part of Missouri. My elementary education was received in a one-room school where my father taught, except for times when sharecropper duties called, and my mother became the substitute teacher. Experiences on the farm and in the woods around the farm caused me to develop an interest in the mysteries of nature and resulted in my choosing technical agriculture as my major upon entering college at Tuskegee Institute.
Question 2: Share a story from your past that led to your choosing your field of work.
Answer: What might appear to have been an insignificant observation at the time led to my later interest in botany as a science. In the general biology course during my senior year in high school, we were studying plant structure and had to learn the parts of a flower. Only textbook and blackboard drawings were used. One morning before leaving for school, I was asked to pick English peas from our garden. My attention was drawn to the flowers on the plants and I discovered that I could recognize the actual parts of a flower. This incident triggered my later interest in plant and, ultimately, fungal systematics.
Question 3: What are you most proud of in your work?
Answer: The opportunity that I have had to be a mentor for the many outstanding students that have or have had distinguished careers in their fields of endeavor as professional scientists, academic administrators, corporate executives, and educators; and to have assisted them in developing their talents, elevating their horizons, and in overcoming barriers.
Question 4: Why I chose my particular field of study.
Answer: As a result of my undergraduate experiences in plant taxonomy, I had decided to specialize in this branch of botany. My tour of duty in the Navy took me to Hawaii, where I served as an architectural draftsman. While there as a serviceman and later as a civilian, I became a part-time graduate student at the University of Hawaii in order to study native and exotic plants of the islands. All-day field trips were sponsored by the botany department once a month throughout the calendar year, and the two-week Christmas vacation was spent on a collecting expedition on one of the other islands. I participated on all of these trips during my two years as a graduate student in order to develop a personal collection of native Hawaiian plants. One of the faculty members on these trips was a mycologist. I became interested in the kinds of specimens he was collecting and their uniqueness as organisms. This led me to an interest in studying fungi, their systematics, their relationship to diseases of plants, and subsequently a professional career as a mycologist/plant pathologist.
Question 5: Early childhood story.
Answer: When I was about seven years old, my teacher-tenant farmer father would take me into the surrounding woods with him to fell trees for firewood for the winter. Our single-walled, unpainted sharecropper house was heated by a wood-burning stove in the living area. He would point out certain trees and tell me their common names, for he didn't know scientific names. All trees in our area were deciduous; identity was based mainly on leaf form, bark surface, and kind of flower, fruit or seed. Trees that I soon learned to recognize were redbud (by flower), hackberry (by bark and fruit in the fall), bird's holly (by its red fruit and bare branches in winter) and by its use as a Christmas tree in the schoolhouse, oaks (by acorns), sweet gum (by the gum-like exudate that we would remove from bruised areas of the bark and chew as gum) and pecan, hickory and black walnut (by what we regarded as their seeds). On the ground in the woods near some of these trees we would find dark brown globose bodies containing a brownish dust which I would later come to know as puffballs (we called them "devil's snuff boxes"). Certainly I had no idea at that time that later in my life plant and fungal taxonomy would become my principal scientific interest.