Dr. Cathy Cripps of MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology was awarded the prestigious W.H. Weston Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work in mycology at the collegiate level in July. Mycology is the scientific study of fungi, a field that has interested Cripps ever since she was a kid. “Being able to teach what you love makes it so much more fun for me and I think it makes it more fun for the students too,” said Cripps. The W.H. Weston award is symbolic of the incredible effort and commitment Cripps has made toward educating the next generation of biologists and mycologists.
Cripps taught biology for roughly 11 years before shifting toward her field of passion: fungi. Cripps said, “I love teaching and I really like teaching at MSU. I think we have a great set of students. Maybe coming from ranches or the real world or being connected to the environment makes for students who are really ready to learn about mushrooms.”
The award represents the great amount of respect her students hold for their professor, as it was her students who initially nominated her. Despite her classes being non-mandatory electives in the program, Cripps said they almost always have a waiting list and lecture halls are always full. One of Cripps’ former graduate students, Edward Barge, wrote in his nomination letter, “She inspires students to think about things differently and to pursue their passions, and I have seen her again and again do whatever she can to help students succeed.” Cripps motivates her students with both her work in the field and her inspirational teaching practices.
Upon moving to the mountains of Colorado near the town of Crested Butte, she was introduced to the fascinating world of mushrooms. “There were old-timers there from Europe,” Cripps said, “They were leftover from the coal mining days and they were foragers. They would go out and collect certain mushrooms.” Cripps would frequently follow these European foragers out to see what they gathered.
The knowledge brought by European settlers was passed down to younger generations and inspired Cripps to dedicate her life to increasing such knowledge in her students. Today, the work is as rewarding as it has ever been. Cripps said, “I’ve taught about fungi for so many years, and yet I see a picture of a mushroom on the screen and I’m just as excited as I was before.”
Cripps is currently working on helping whitebark pine restoration efforts. The whitebark pine is a high-elevation tree that grows along the tree line and is endangered from mountain pine beetles and blister rust. Cripps’ work involves collecting mycorrhizal fungi found in the whitebark pine environment and attaching them to the roots of sapling trees before they are planted in the wild. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with the root systems of their host plant, with which fungal colonies work to greatly increase the trees’ nitrogen intake and gather other nutrients from the soil. In exchange, the tree sends sugars to the roots, which the fungi use to survive. Symbiotic relationships are prevalent in nature and Cripps hopes this one will greatly aid in her restoration efforts.
Dr. Cripps continues to work diligently in the field of fungi and in the classroom, helping to inspire and educate the students she teaches at MSU. “I’ve gotten to travel and study and work with students from all sorts of degree programs. This work has really grabbed me,” said Cripps. Professors like Cathy Cripps inspire vast arrays of MSU undergraduate and graduate students, meanwhile, the student body at MSU continues to inspire and motivate Cripps every day.