Danny Haelewaters



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I’ve always been a bit of an inquisitive person. As a child I must have asked thousands of questions, probably more. I might have driven my mum crazy during the process, but I guess I turned out alright. From when I was able to utter my first few words as a toddler I had the dream of becoming a veterinary scientist. We used to have a dog—named Bobby, what can I say?—and I accompanied my mum pretty much every day when she went out to walk with him. These walks with weren’t, uh, a walk in the park; this was some extensive training. Bobby was a hunter (although a small one, a dachshund AKA a sausage dog) and so we did quite a bit of running. I remember lots of rabbits where we used to go. Anyway, it was during those moments and conversations with my mum that my love for nature, and animals in particular, started. Fast-forward to college: I started my studies to become a veterinarian but it became clear that I wasn’t going to be happy working in a hospital setting for the rest of my life (with the utmost respect for those who do! #HeroesWorkHere). I decided to finish my bachelor degree in Veterinary Medicine and then switch to biology.

I entered a master’s program at Ghent University and fell in love with … mushrooms. From animals to mushrooms, quite the switch, wouldn’t you agree? Meanwhile, I became an assistant-salesman at a chain of supermarkets to pay the bills, and later I briefly ran a bed and breakfast in rural southeastern France. However, science was never far away. I never dreamt of moving to the United States (perhaps it was a looming dream?) but opportinities arose and before I knew it, I was accepted for a PhD program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. It didn’t take long for me and all my belongings to get on a plane to Boston, Massachusetts. What happened next was the craziest ride of my life—Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts (PhD, 2012–2018), České Budějovice, Czech Republic (postdoc, 2018), and West Lafayette, Indiana (postdoc, 2018–2020). Since November 2020, I am back in Belgium, working as a Research Foundation–Flanders Junior Postdoctoral Fellow at Ghent University (Research Group Mycology, Department of Biology). My main focus are bat fly-associated Laboulbeniales fungi.

Since the early days as a budding mycologist, I’ve had a fondness for interdisciplinary research as well as biological interactions. This likely contributed to my choice of Laboulbeniales as the topic of my MSc thesis, and later also my PhD dissertation. These microscopic fungi are obligate ectoparasites of arthropods. As parasites, they play an important role in the ecosystem, but they have been traditionally neglected by the larger mycological community. Studying the Laboulbeniales, I have had moments of great joy and moments of absolute despair. I understand all too well why throughout the year not many people have worked with these crazy teeny-tinies, but by publishing well-written and often open-access papers about them, I hope to lower the bar for the next generation of students. Mentoring is important to me; when a Twitter thread appaeared about types of advisors as depicted through Disney characters, two of my students mentioned Mary Poppins for me. Loved that. Hopefully this means that I am a good mentor. In aiming to engage my students, I use strategies so they gain competence, a sense of autonomy, and social connectedness (three motivators unapologetically borrowed from this 2010 Forum piece).

Danny Haelewaters (°1983) holds a Bachelor in Veterinary Medicine, a Bachelor in Biology, a Master of Science in biology, and a PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. During his Master program he developed a new technology to analyze forensic relevant fungi in casework at the Netherlands Forensic Institute. Between 2012 and 2018, he was a PhD student at the Farlow Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts). In 2018, he did a brief postdoc at the University of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic, between November 2018 and November 2020 he was a USDA-funded postdoctoral research assistant at Purdue University, where he characterized the fungal microbiota of Romaine lettuce. Since November 2020, he is back at his Alma Mater, Ghent University, as a Research Foundation–Flanders Junior Postdoctoral Fellow, again working with the Laboulbeniales fungi. In addition to his research, he writes popular science articles for different sources, including Scientias.nlEos-magazine, and FUNGI Magazine.