"I want my students to have an appreciation for things they can’t see out there—the microbes that were here millions of years before people. They are everywhere and they run everything on the planet." - Catherine Aime
Profiles in Teaching focuses each month on an individual whose work reflects Purdue Agriculture's commitment to learning.
About the Professor
Catherine Aime, professor of Botany and Plant Pathology, had no special attachment to fungi before her final undergraduate lab class at Virginia Tech University.
“I don’t think anybody ever grows up wanting to be a mycologist and study fungi,” Aime said. “But in college, I had a good teacher who inspired me and taught me mycology.”
Ever since, Aime has found fungi and all other microbes—organisms usually too small to see—fascinating. She has dedicated her career to studying them, mostly out of admiration for these strange, near-invisible creatures.
“Fungi are absolutely the coolest things on the planet,” she said. “They don’t behave like other eukaryotes, like other plants. There’s a fungus out there that has 28,000 sexes. Not just two. There are fungi that swim, some that are thousands of years old, and one that digests food by shooting its digestive organs outside its body.”
Aime teaches BTNY 20700, Microbial World. She intentionally keeps classes small, usually under 20 students.
“I find when there are 20 people in the room I can memorize everybody’s name the first day,” she said. “I can see when they’re paying attention to me or when I lose them. With larger classes it’s really easy to lose them.”
Aime believes in tailoring her courses to the students because, she says, every class is different and students in each class have different interests.
“This year, we had a lot of students interested in medicinal mushrooms and things like that,” Aime said. “With a small class size, I can tailor lectures for them and keep them at the right speed.”
Aime strives to teach topics that are the most interesting in the world of microbes—the same goes for her lab sessions.
“For the lab component, we make food, because food is all microbiology—we make a lot of yogurts and cheeses,” she said.
Beyond instilling her passion for mycology to her students, Aime has another consistent goal in all her teaching.
“I also want students to learn how to think like scientists. They need to know how science works to distinguish the misinformation out there from the real information needed to be effective citizens of the planet.”
Teaching Through Research
Unsurprisingly, Aime’s fascination for microbes has led to her research at Purdue being fungi-focused. Beyond antibiotic development, much of mycology and how organisms such as fungi interact are unknown. She has students in her lab working to discover and study new microbial species. One of her students even discovered a new species of yeast in Indiana which was then named after that student. Aime also takes students who work in her lab on research trips all over the world. In 2015, she took one of her undergraduate students to a jungle in Guyana to study a specific fungus.
“We looked at these fungi that form in giant webs, like spider webs, in the jungle canopy,” she said. “They catch and decompose leaves.”
Such passion for her research in the field would normally lend itself to a research-based career, but after four years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a post-doctoral researcher, Aime decided to go into academia, where she intends to stay.
“When I was at the USDA, I realized I really missed having students, because as a graduate student I taught a lot of undergrads,” she said. “I like interacting with students because they always keep me on my toes. They always seem to ask a perplexing question. This is good; it keeps me learning.”
By Emma Hopkins
Purdue Agriculture Teaching Profiles are written by students majoring in Agricultural Communication.