Meet the Team

Robert Cichewicz, Ph.D., Program Director

Dr. Cichewicz is the director of the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program and the Natural Products Discovery Group. As the program’s creator, he helped transform this unique citizen science initiative into the world’s largest drug discovery program focused on fungi and their natural products. In the process, Dr. Cichewicz has had the good fortune to provide training for students who have gone on to have careers microbiology, chemistry, medicine, and education.

“It is incredible to see and test so many wonderful and unique fungi from all over the United States. These fungi and the natural products they produce have become the cornerstone of our drug discovery efforts aimed at helping children and adults suffering from a variety of devastating diseases.”

Candace CokerProject Manager

Candace manages the public side of the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program. This involves serving in a variety of roles including speaking with citizen scientists, mailing and receiving collection kits, and developing other fun ideas for the program. She built and maintains the Program’s website, manages new data and photos, and serves as a liaison between project scientists and citizen scientists. If you email us, she’s the one you’ll hear from first.

“I love seeing the fungi photographs. I am fascinated by these beautiful organisms and how much good can come from something that is often taken for granted.”

Karen Wendt, Research Associate

Karen helps lead the fungal identification portion of Citizen Science Soil Collection Program and curates the result from the fungal sequencing efforts. She manages large fermentations that the chemists use to find new natural products from fungi. Karen is also interested in the biological diversity of the fungi in the collection and she has been collaboratively exploring this using genetic and chemical methods.

“Fungi are a hugely diverse section of life, forming their own kingdom. They are largely unseen yet so necessary to a healthy ecosystem as well as making compounds that are so useful to humanity. Those are the things that make my work here so fascinating.”

Anita Mjaaseth
Maddie Huggins, Research Associate

Maddie’s role in the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program includes preparing soil samples for culturing fungi, isolating fungi from those samples, processing fungi for storage, and sorting through fungi for genetic processing.

“ I love working with fungi and their natural products because they are such a unique and diverse group of organisms that we often don’t think of having the potential to be the next form of drug discovery. It’s incredible to be part of a team who are as dedicated, interested, and curious as me!”

Jason Draper
Jason Draper, Undergraduate Research Assistant

Jason is a junior majoring in biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma. His roles in the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program include preparing soil samples for culturing fungi, isolating fungi from those samples, and assisting with genetic sequencing.

“The natural products made by fungi are incredibly varied and diverse. It’s exciting to be part of a team dedicated to finding and identifying those compounds and how they can be beneficially used in all of our lives.”

Fares Najar, Ph.D., Director of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Bioinformatics Core

Dr. Najar has years of experience preparing, processing, analyzing, and managing large genomics data sets. Dr. Najar applies those skills toward identifying the thousands of fungi that are analyzed each year in the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program. In addition, Dr. Najar helped design and create the team’s data management system, as well as provides expert advice regarding changes and improvements to the genomics analysis workflow.

“I love being on the cutting edge of fungal discovery and the potential to discover new drugs.”