Current Student Spotlight

Terri Billingsley Tobias
Student Spotlight October 2018

Terri Billingsley Tobias is a PhD candidate at Western Illinois University, originally from Huntsville, IL. She is currently working in the lab of Dr. Andrea Porras-Alfaro, where she is researching fungi (especially yeasts) associated with aquatic ecosystems. Yeasts play important roles in food webs, degradation of organic matter, and nutrient cycling in aquatic ecosystems. However, the diversity and abundance of yeasts in aquatic systems remains poorly characterized and is likely underestimated.  In addition, their functional roles and interactions with other aquatic species is becoming increasingly important. The purpose of Terri’s project is to describe the fungal community in an urban stream and examine the potential endophytic links between aquatic yeasts and riparian trees. She will also characterize potential interactions between mosquito and fungal populations in an urban stream.

Terri enjoys teaching, mentoring, and research which is why she decided to pursue her Ph.D. When she finishes her PhD, Terri is looking for a position in academia where she can continue to study fungi, teach and work with rural communities.

Terri recently received two awards for her outreach work with rural high school students. She received a Honorary Chapter FFA Degree for her volunteer efforts in agriscience education and the Friend of Education Award from the Southeastern Education Association. She also received the Harry D. Theirs Mentor Student Travel Award at IMC 11, 2018.

What is your favorite fungus and why?

My favorite fungus is the morel.  I have many fond memories of morel hunting with my parents and grandparents as a child.  We would go every spring to our favorite spots. I credit these early mushroom hunting expeditions to my love for biology.  Walking in the woods as a child taught me to appreciate nature and be observant of all the species in the woods. I don’t think my dad or grandparents at the time knew they were training a future mycologist but if they were here today I think  they would be pleased with the outcome. I continued the tradition of morel hunting with my children and we have many pictures and memories of successful seasons. Morel hunting is one of my favorite activities.

What is your favorite fact/thing about fungi?

My favorite lab task is culturing fungi. When I travel I will often collect environmental samples and culture them. So my favorite fact is that fungi grow everywhere.  You can find them in your refrigerator, on your skin, in the forest, in the desert, in plants, in soil, in water and some even grow at extremely high or low temperatures. It is also estimated that less than 10 percent have been identified so we are always looking for new species to describe.

Who is your mycology role model?

Ralph Emerson , Dr. Emerson worked on both aquatic and thermophilic fungi.  I am using some of his techniques in my current research. He made many contributions to the field of mycology.  In addition, he was also a dedicated teacher and advisor.

Any great stories from field work (funny/interesting/something that stuck out to you)?

The focus of my study is aquatic fungi so for my first field experiment I used an old fungal trapping method used by Emerson.  I was having several issues with animals destroying my mesh traps and eating the fruit out of the creek. So I changed the design the traps and started to use plastic easter eggs.  I was setting these traps in an urban stream and didn’t really anticipate the attention they might attract. My eggs would get picked up by curious children who would play in the parks.  At first it was a little frustrating but also funny. In the end it became a nice summer outreach activity for several local children. They loved to help set the traps and collect them.

What do you like to do in your free time? What are your hobbies?

I love to cook and I actually belong to a cooking team.  We compete in BBQ contests in our local area for charitable events.  Our team name is Redneck Riviera and we are pretty good. We have won several awards.  My lab mates are often our guinea pigs for new recipes. They help us choose the winning recipes for competitions.


Anything else you’d like to talk about, leave here! (career goals, outreach, science communication, photography, etc)

One of my goals during my Ph.D. studies has been to improve science communication through social media and connect rural students with research opportunities.  I think this is very important as we face global challenges with climate change. Scientific literacy benefits everyone. Our youth will be the next generation of problem-solvers and I see part of our responsibility as scientists to encouraging them.