Shedding light on the world of fungi: Society Fellow Lori Carris

Photo of Carris standing next to a seated Harper, in front of a microscope in a lab.
Lori Carris, professor and teacher in plant pathology, visits with undergraduate researcher Sylena Harper, in a project studying how fungus can help fight off devastating mites that harm honey bees. Carris is one of three scientists to receive the Fellow Award from the Mycological Society of America (Seth Truscott-WSU Photo).

The newest Fellow of the Mycological Society of America, award-winning Washington State University scientist and teacher Lori Carris helps us understand the incredible impact that fungi have on our crops, our lives and our world.

One of only three scientists around the world to receive the Fellow Award in 2018, Carris received her fellowship at the 11th International Mycological Congress, held earlier this year in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The honor recognizes outstanding members of the society for extended service and contributions to mycology in teaching and research.

“Fungi are all around us, everywhere on earth, and play important roles in the health and disease of many crops and foods we eat,” said Carris.

Some fungi provide essential nutrients for plants, but others, like the smuts and bunts that Carris studies, cause disease in plants, devastating cereal crops. Fungi may also help save honey bees from a devastating mite, and the deadly viruses those mites transmit.

“For more than 30 years, it’s been my privilege to conduct research on fungi and teach the next generation of scientists. The Fellow Award is a very inspiring and humbling recognition.”

Carris was nominated for the award by Julia Kerrigan, a former WSU plant pathology graduate student, now an associate professor at Clemson University.

Identifying disease, helping save bees

Current chair of the Department of Plant Pathology, Carris is a professor who both studies and teaches mycology. She explores biodiversity in fungi, with an emphasis on grass- and cereal-infecting species of smut fungi and morel mushrooms.

Shot showing Carris' hands, holding smut-infected wheat and the smut that has smeared her fingers.
Carris’ index finger is covered in spores of smut, a musty-smelling fungus that attacks wheat and other crops. Her research helps identify unknown species of fungal pathogens (Seth Truscott-WSU Photo).

Her work helps scientists and growers identify and control fungal pathogens and is used in plant quarantines that impact hundreds of thousands of dollars of agricultural trade.

For example, Carris and her team of researchers have identified previously unknown species of fungus affecting grasses, helping improve quarantine methods and protecting Pacific Northwest seed exports. Work in her lab was instrumental in confirming that a recent outbreak in Kansas wheat was caused by flag smut, a quarantined pathogen that had not been reported in that state for more than 80 years.

Carris also works with WSU’s honey bee research team, exploring ways to use fungi to control devastating Varroa mites and other bee pests and pathogens.

As a teacher, she has led undergraduate and graduate courses in mycology and fungal biology, including an entry level class for non-science majors called “Molds, Mildews, Mushrooms: The Fifth Kingdom,” and the Global Issues in Science course for WSU’s Honors College.

At the university, Carris serves as the associate dean of the Graduate School for academic affairs and recruitment in areas including interdisciplinary programs in Molecular Plant Sciences and Material Sciences and Engineering; and the Campus Visit for Diverse Scholars and Research Assistantships for Diverse Scholars, or RADS, programs.

Deeply involved in the Mycological Society of America, she is a past Executive Vice President, committee member, and associate editor for its journal, Mycologia.

Learn more about the Society here.