Brantlee Spakes-Richter was born in Columbia, South Carolina. She obtained concurrent BA degrees in English and Women’s Studies in 1993 at Arizona State University and her MS in Plant Biology in 1999 at the same institution. Her PhD in Plant Pathology was granted in 2009 from North Carolina State University. Dr. Spakes-Richter is one of the most inspiring teachers at the University of Florida and has developed a national reputation as a scholar of teaching and learning in plant pathology, and in undergraduate STEM education. It is her intellect, energy, dedication and poise that puts her at the top rung of her profession. Her courses are popular yet challenging, engaging and serious. Her excellent pedagogy guides a large number of students through critical concepts about disease, agriculture and science, and her combined industry and academic experience brings a range of perspectives into the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Richter is ultimately responsible for attracting a large number of high quality students to agricultural research and to the field of Plant Pathology.
Dr. Richter teaches three key courses for the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida: 1) Fundamentals of Plant Pathology, 2) Fungus Among Us: Mushrooms, Molds and Civilization and 3) Plants, Plagues and People. Fundamentals of Plant Pathology is a keystone course in the plant pathology graduate program at the University of Florida. However, the course attracts graduate students and advanced undergraduates from 14 majors across campus. This hands-on lab course is a tour de force of Plant Pathology and provides detailed coverage of all of the major pathogen groups, including viruses, fungi, bacteria, and nematodes. Students are exposed to energetic lectures that are integrated with experiential, hands-on lab activities. When they leave this course, students are well prepared for the rigorous studies that will follow. This course is consistently ranked as challenging by students, and yet it is extremely popular – after only three years at the helm, Dr. Richter expanded the course from two to three sections because the demand was so high, and after only three more years, there was once again a waiting list for registration.
The other two courses (Fungus Among Us and Plants, Plagues, and Peoples) are general education science courses that are typically taken by first and second year students and/or non-science majors. Fungus Among Us is a partially “flipped” course with weekly hands-on activities. Plants, Plagues and People is a large course (sometimes >300 students) where Dr. Richter’s articulate and vivacious teaching style can compensate for the difficulties of the large format. In recent years, Dr. Richter has begun to offer this course in both live and online formats. Although it could be challenging to switch from in-person to online teaching, Dr. Richter’s courses have remained popular and are highly ranked by students regardless of format. One testament to the massive influence that Dr. Richter’s teaching has had here at UF is that many students from these lower division courses end up in upper division Plant Pathology courses or are employed as student researchers in Plant Pathology labs.
In addition to classroom teaching, Dr. Richter is active in teaching and learning about phytopathology and agriculture both within the University of Florida and across the nation. Dr. Richter has been an APS member since 1999 and has served on four committees (including the APS Teaching Committee) and has also organized several symposia. In conjunction with other APS Teaching Committee members, Dr. Richter led a survey on undergraduate education in Plant Pathology. With collaborators at two other institutions, she obtained USDA-NIFA funding to conduct educational and employer surveys, designed to better understand course and curriculum needs at the undergraduate level. Dr. Richter has been named a UF Roche Teaching Fellow (2014) and UF CALS Undergraduate Teacher of the Year (2016), and received a NACTA Educator Award (North American Colleges & Teachers of Agriculture, 2016). She is also a member of the Gamma Sigma Delta Honor Society of Agriculture, and the Mycological Society of America. Dr. Richter is an integral member of the UF Plant Pathology curriculum committee, helps to administer the Doctor of Plant Medicine (DPM) examination at UF, and has created a departmental framework for training graduate teaching assistants. Dr. Richter is also an integral member of the steering committee for the undergraduate Plant Science degree program, where she represents Plant Pathology and collaborates closely with faculty in Agronomy, Horticulture and other departments to ensure that the Plant Science curriculum meets the needs of students across campus. In addition to work specifically focused on agricultural sciences, Dr. Richter has had an ongoing collaborative “Science Identity” project (with a faculty member in Agricultural Education and Communication) to explore the impacts of general education courses and modes of delivery on students’ attitudes towards and identification with science. In addition to her teaching activities, she maintains a research program exploring tea as a specialty crop, and a teaching-research hybrid program examining pathogens of weeds and native plants.
Dr. Richter’s external reviews have been spectacular. One letter from a legendary and highly awarded teacher stated: “From my perspective she has captured all the most important features of success in classroom teaching and she’s applied them to her work with a uniquely exceptional talent that is just plain rare in academia these days.” This is an excellent summary of Dr. Richter’s skills and talents.