Beyond the Classroom: Computer Science with a Side of Mushrooms

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Michael Brown is a professor and Canada Research Chair from Kentucky, USA. 
 
“Don’t hold it against me though,” he says with a laugh. 
 
After completing his Computer Science PhD in 2001 from the University of Kentucky, he has worked almost exclusively outside of the US with fourteen years of teaching experience in Hong Kong and Singapore, and now three in Canada after joining Lassonde in 2016. 
 
Currently, he teaches in the department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science with research focusing on computer vision, image processing and computer graphics. 
 
“I really enjoy how computing allows you to quickly go from pure ‘thought stuff’ to working outcomes. To me, engineering is about problem solving and I enjoy the balance of elegant ideas and practical solutions.”
 
While his professional life is closely tied to the digital world, he strikes a fine balance on his off hours exploring the forests surrounding Toronto. 
 
In a world inundated with technology, there's a growing trend toward "unplugging" and reconnecting with nature. Brown has found a unique and intellectually stimulating way to incorporate this into his life, through mushroom hunting. 
 
Mushroom hunting is the practice of gathering mushrooms in the wild – whether to eat or simply to observe and identify. York University’s location provides both urban access and proximity to nature, making this hobby unique and accessible as a full-time professor with hundreds of students in any given semester and research obligations. 
 
Brown’s interest in mushroom hunting began in 2017 after joining the Mycological Society of Toronto (MST) as a way to explore areas surrounding Toronto and participate in forays, an expedition where participants explore forests and wooded areas for various species of mushroom. 
 
“People often assume mushroom hunting is about finding mushrooms to eat, but many mushroom hunters (including myself) are really interested in the enormous varieties of mushrooms. Fungi are amazing organisms that are quite different from plants and animals,” says Brown. 
 
Professionally, Brown considers himself a lifelong learner, committed to growing and advancing the field of computer science. His attitude toward this hobby is no different. 
 
For the past two years Brown has participated in the Cain Foray, a two-day event hosted by MST just outside of Huntsville. Foragers are tasked with visiting several locations spanning national parks and private land to collect as many different fungi specimen as possible. Foragers then bring their findings to a central location where experts help participants identify their collections. 
 
“The Cain Foray is an excellent opportunity to learn how to identify the different types of mushrooms and to learn which are edible and which are not,” says Brown. 
 
One of Brown’s photos from a foray was even featured in the MST’s annual calendar. It was a photo of a Laetiporus sulphureus, colloquially referred to as the "chicken of the woods" because of its edibility and chicken-like flavour. 
 
“Mushrooms are an integrate part of the ecosystem that we don't think about.  Now that I've been doing this for almost two years I can take a walk in the woods and spot mushrooms I would have previously never noticed,” remarks Brown. 
 
Brown urges prospective foragers to go to the library and get a book on mushroom hunting in Ontario to start. From there, visit a park nearby, especially after it rains, to look for mushrooms. 
 
If you enjoy doing this, join the MST and attend some of the organized Forays (the Cain is only one of many), to meet like-minded foraging hobbyists and learn from experts. You can even join a local mushroom hunter and forager Facebook Page
 
“The best part [about mushroom hunting] is finding a new mushroom you haven't seen before. Some mushrooms are much rarer than others and spotting a fairly rare one, like a black trumpet, is satisfying.”

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