Published: Oct. 28, 2020

Katharine Suding, college professor of distinction, says science teaching can connect with students when it includes the ‘spark of exploration and the excitement of the unknown’

“Curiosity starts in your own backyard,” argues Katharine Suding—a lesson she illustrates with her own research on historic apples, which she discovered in her backyard.

Suding, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is one of four professors to win the honorific of Professor of Distinction this year. The others are Elspeth Dusinberre of classics, Michelle Ellsworth of theatre and dance and Pieter Johnson and Katharine N. Suding of ecology and evolutionary biology. 

Katherine Suding

Katherine Suding

Suding, who also directs the Niwot Ridge Long-term Ecological Program for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, is a plant community ecologist working at the interface of ecosystem, landscape and population biology. Her goal is to apply cutting-edge “usable” science to the challenges of restoration, species invasion and environmental change.

She and her research group work with a range of conservation groups, government agencies and land managers to provide evidence-based solutions that take into account biodiversity, human well-being and management opportunities. They employ a combination of long-term monitoring, modeling and experimental approaches in settings that range from alpine tundra to oak woodlands to grasslands. 

She is a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has twice been listed as a Highly Cited Researcher by ISI Web of Science; she is among the top 1% of authors in environmental science.

Suding answered three questions from the Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine recently, and her responses follow:

Your research group aims to “apply cutting-edge science to the challenges of restoration, invasion and environmental change”; if you were to briefly tell an audience of high-school students why they should care about your work, what would you say?

Alongside the climate crisis, we are also facing a global biodiversity crisis, with loss of species, decline of local food cultivars, and deteriorating natural ecosystems. As nature starts to unravel, we are losing the vital contributions people receive from our world.  

My research focuses on how we can better anticipate these changes and what we can do as solutions: how we might be able to improve future biodiversity trajectories and reweave nature’s essential web. 

I mostly focus on plants, often in areas that people rely on for their livelihoods. I ask questions about how species interact with each other and how this web is impacted by changing climate or other human actions.

When I work with kids, I see that spark of exploration and excitement of the unknown."

In your TedxCU talk, “Curiosity starts in your backyard,” you note that people tend to become less curious as they age and you discuss how you strive to reawaken such curiosity in your students; for those of us who aren’t in your class or laboratory, how would you advise us to rekindle a sense of wonder in the world?

As a scientist I love being able to ask a question and then figure out the answer, which almost always leads to more questions. When I work with kids, I see that spark of exploration and excitement of the unknown.  But we often teach science by giving a lot of facts and knowledge up front, leaving inquiry to later. 

Getting students out in everyday places, places that they know, and emphasizing discovery, how science can contribute and engage with our local communities, is a priority of mine. I think it can broaden the range of interests, identities and backgrounds of people that consider science as a career.

The title “professor of distinction” is an honor reserved for scholars and artists of national and international distinction who are also recognized by their college peers as teachers and colleagues of exceptional talent; what is your reaction to winning this award?

The award came as a surprise. When I received the news from my chair, I went downstairs to tell my 9-year-old, who was stuck at the kitchen table doing remote school, and he said, “Great, does this mean we can get tacos tonight?” And yes, we did celebrate with tacos. But at 10 a.m.

I am truly honored to be considered a professor of distinction. It is a great honor to be placed in such distinguished ranks as the past honorees. The honor reflects all the amazing talent of the team of CU students, researchers and colleagues whom I have been fortunate to work with. It has been our work together. Thank you.

The newly named professors of distinction will give presentations on their research and scholarly work in spring 2021. Details about those presentations are coming.