You could tell that Dave Rizzo was going to be a science guy when he started doing chemistry experiments and growing molds for second- and third-grade show and tell.
But, the fact that science would lead him to square off with one of California’s most destructive forest diseases and help create an entirely new global-disease major at the University of California, Davis, came as a surprise — and to no one more than Rizzo himself.
“When I was young — or even 30 — if you had told me that I would be doing what I’m doing now, I would have laughed at you,“ said Rizzo, a plant disease expert who joined the UC Davis faculty 22 years ago.
“That’s why I tell students not to worry if they don’t know what they want to do in life — keep working, but don’t stress,” he said, smiling.
Today, Rizzo, whom colleagues describe as a “student of pedagogy” — the theory and practice of teaching — received the 2017 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation and, at $45,000, believed to be the largest recognition of its kind in the nation.
It might be surprising to find that Rizzo takes teaching so seriously. It seems he can’t keep a straight face for more than an instant before breaking into a smile and cracking a self-deprecating joke.
But, in fact, a touch of fun and excitement are prerequisites for any class Rizzo teaches. If he has a philosophy of teaching, certainly enthusiasm for the subject and the students is its foundation.
“To be a good teacher, I think you have to be enthusiastic,” he said. “If I can’t get enthusiastic about something, how can I expect students to get excited?”
That philosophy is not lost on his students, who peppered their evaluations of him with comments such as: “Extremely energetic,” “Made class fun and interesting,” “One of the best professors I ever had" and “Beyond helpful and enthusiastic!”
Into the woods
In contrast, it was a rather sobering moment that pointed Rizzo toward a career in academia and research.
While an undergraduate biology student attending James Madison University in Virginia, Rizzo went hiking in the nearby Shenandoah National Park. He was struck by the giant stumps dotting the landscape. They were all that remained of American chestnut trees, wiped out in the United States by chestnut blight.
“It was amazing to me that a disease could so radically change what the forest looked like,” he said.
Just 17 years after graduating from James Madison, having collected master’s and doctoral degrees in plant pathology from the University of New Hampshire and University of Minnesota, Rizzo found himself on the opposite coast in different forests but once again facing a deadly tree disease. This one, dubbed “sudden oak death,” was mysteriously and quickly killing tanoaks and other trees in Northern California and appeared to threaten the entire state.
In 2000, Rizzo and colleague Matteo Garbelotto at UC Berkeley identified the culprit behind sudden oak death as Phytophthora ramorum, a funguslike microorganism that caused infected trees to ooze sap, lose foliage and soon die. The disease spread and, 17 years later, is still difficult to treat across the landscape. But Rizzo’s laboratory is involved in numerous efforts to restore infested forests and protect forests that are still at risk.
As the sudden oak death story has unfolded, Rizzo has maintained a robust teaching program, including both introductory and advanced courses in mycology — the study of fungi and molds. He developed an interest in mushrooms and other fungi because they play such an important role in the forest landscape.
“I like mushrooms and fungi because they are so weird and different,” he said. “And, unlike animal and human diseases, which are mostly caused by viruses and bacteria, most forest diseases are caused by fungi.”
He shares that fascination with his students, taking them each November to the Mendocino coast to hunt mushrooms.
By university standards, where faculty members are tasked with conducting research, mentoring graduate students and applying for research grants — in addition to classroom and laboratory instruction — Rizzo’s teaching load is hefty. He generally teaches at least one course every quarter and now also carries lead administrative responsibilities as chair of the Department of Plant Pathology.
Every student learns differently
Through the years, Rizzo’s teaching style has evolved to include a greater recognition of students’ varied learning styles. “I’ve slowly gotten out of the traditional mode of lecturing and testing,’” he said. “Some students are just lousy test takers.”
Instead, he started offering alternatives, including oral exams, which are really formal discussions with students.
“During an oral exam, I might say, ‘Are you sure about that?’ Then they can backtrack, and lots of times will just nail the answer,” he said. “With a written test, how much of it was the student not knowing and how much of it was me writing a poor question?”
Taking a global disease perspective
Three years ago, Rizzo led development of the global-disease biology major, which he describes as “a supersized public health” major for undergraduates. Linking faculty from the schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the major educates undergraduate students on the importance of understanding the connections between human, animal and plant health. Taking such a “one health” approach to the world is something only UC Davis and a handful of other universities throughout the country are equipped to do, Rizzo said.
The major, launched in the 2014-15 school year, was an instant hit with students. It opened with an enrollment of 96 students, grew to 230 students the second year and now has nearly 300 students — an unusually rapid growth rate for a new major.
“A lot of students are interested in health but not all want to go to medical school,” Rizzo said, noting that students appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of global disease biology and the opportunity it offers undergraduates for research.
Keeping the goal in mind
Like any instructor who is truly a teacher at heart, Rizzo enjoys his students and finds himself continually learning from them. When he chooses a graduate student to join his laboratory, he never looks for a “mini-me,” but rather someone with a different background and perspective, he said.
“Some of the most fun things are when students come to office hours just to chat or ask questions beyond what they have to know,” Rizzo said. “And it’s also cool to get an email or note from a former student.”
After his students are finished with their many lectures, labs, midterms, field trips and finals — and UC Davis is in their rearview mirror — Rizzo hopes they have gained something very specific from him.
“I hope that the one thing that they take away from me is that they’ve learned to love to learn,” he said, nodding his head with a contented Rizzo smile.
About the undergraduate teaching prize
Established in 1986, the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement was created to honor faculty who are both exceptional teachers and scholars. The $45,000 prize is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country and is funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation. The winner is selected based on the nominations of other professors, other research peers, and representatives of the UC Davis Foundation board of trustees, as well as from students. See a list of all the recipients since the award's inception.