Faculty Member’s Passion for Natural Science Extends Into Online Master’s Degree Programs

Brandon Arbuckle March 13, 2024
A graphic featuring Lisa Grubisha, a faculty member for the UW Applied Biotechnology and Biodiversity Conservation and Management online STEM degree programs.

Whether it’s animals, plants, or fungi, Lisa Grubisha, PhD, has always been intrigued by the natural world and the organisms that comprise it. Her love for science is rooted in spending summers at day camps as a Girl Scout.

“We learned about a variety of organisms, went on hikes, and looked at flowers,” she said. “I think that really sparked my interest in science, especially natural science.”

Lisa carried this interest into college and went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to earn her BS in zoology. Shortly after graduating, she joined the Peace Corps in Senegal and assisted with environmental education in schools and worked with farmers using agroforestry techniques: “I moved away from animals and became more interested in plants and soil.”

She returned to school following her time in the Peace Corps and shifted her focus to studying mycorrhizal fungi, a group of fungi that has a symbiotic relationship with plants. After becoming more involved with research and working with professors as a teaching assistant, Lisa decided she wanted to become a professor herself. She earned her MS in botany from Oregon State University and her PhD in plant and microbial biology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Lisa is now an academic director for the 100 percent online UW Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology and Graduate Certificate in Applied Bioinformatics. She also teaches a course in the UW Master of Science in Biodiversity Conservation and Management.

Lisa Grubisha, a faculty member for the UW Applied Biotechnology and Biodiversity Conservation and Management online STEM degree programs, helps a student with fieldwork for one of her undergraduate courses at UW-Green Bay. Lisa has worked at UW-Green Bay for more than a decade. An associate professor of biology in the Natural and Applied Sciences Department, she teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses in microbiology and mycology on campus. Some of her research interests include conservation biology, phylogenetics, population genetics, and microbial diversity.

When the online Applied Biotechnology program was first announced several years ago, she was approached by the school’s dean to become an academic director for the program. Lisa’s interest in biotechnology and proficiency with bioinformatics has made her a valuable addition to the program’s faculty.

“It is [an] area that I am fascinated with,” she said. “And with my connections with natural science, I have some agriculture linkages as well. So it just seemed like a good fit for me.”

In the following Q&A, we spoke with Lisa to learn more about her course and what students can expect. In honor of “Dress for STEM” taking place this month, we also discussed what women can do to start their careers in STEM and the importance of representation in the field.

Can you tell me more about the course you teach in the Biodiversity Conservation and Management program? 

I teach the BCM 725: Evolution, Biodiversity, and Conservation course. We start off talking about what is a species and different ways scientists categorize species. Using DNA sequences is one way. It’s really the ultimate way of identifying a species in many cases, especially with microbes and fungi. 

But we also cover what is important for conservation managers to know. We’re trying to target it towards a certain level to be practical. So instead of being more theoretical, in a practical sense, why is it important for people that complete this program to understand what a species is, how we determine what species are, and how do we manage species? We also cover topics relating to working in a museum or herbarium, and how to manage animal and plant collections for prosperity and community education. 

Part of biodiversity and conservation management is going to be managing populations that are very small or very fragmented, especially for a lot of our larger predators like big cats or wolves. But even other animals that are not predators, insects, or plants, we’ve taken away a lot of their habitat, so we have many species with very small populations and there’s not a lot of genetic diversity. How do we manage these populations to ensure their survival? We also cover that in the course. 

RELATED: Q&A With Amy Carrozzino-Lyon, Restoration Scientist and Biodiversity and Conservation Management Faculty

What can students expect from you as an instructor in an online degree program? 

I try to be pretty active. Every week I post announcements, and I’ll check in and see when students are posting their assignments and if it’s getting near the due date. I try to have regular office hours or open office hours for them to contact me. 

These online courses can move pretty quickly. If people are working full-time and if they have a family, especially with small children, they can get caught up in their daily life. And then the course usually gets tucked away or forgotten about for a while. So I just try to make sure that students are staying on track, and I feel like that’s my role, too: [making] sure that I reach out to students. If they need some extra time, I just need to know that. 

Sometimes students have family issues, and so getting them the support they need early on is always key. We don’t want a student to go through the semester, and weeks into it, find out that there’s some major family issue that’s keeping them from completing the course. I try to keep on top of that. I also think my experience with [the Applied Biotechnology program] has prepared me for that as well.

What is your favorite part about teaching?

I think hearing from students. When students can be candid and they tell you that something about the course inspired them or they really connected with, and it made a major impact on either how they felt about a topic or opened new windows for a topic [and] changed how they thought about their career. 

They thought they wanted to do something else, but now after taking this course, they realized, “Hey, I really want to do something related to this course.” I know that’s pretty general, but having a personal influence or impact on a student where, instead of just taking the course and checking it off like it was something that they had to do, they were actually impacted by the content or the interaction with me or the other students. Or they saw the relevance and importance of the information in the course. 

RELATED: ‘It’s Never Too Late’: UW Graduate Student With Music Background Shares Experience in Applied Biotechnology Program

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What keeps you motivated with your work in this field? 

I don’t think it’s ever the same—it’s always changing. It’s not mundane or redundant. I do have to keep up with the literature and keep up to date with all the changing technologies. That’s part of the excitement, because I feel like I’m always learning new things. There’s so much we don’t know still, and being able to read and learn about where we’re at right now just really piques my interest. I think that keeps me going. 

Why is it important for more women to be represented in the STEM field?

What I see in my classes is actually that, because I teach microbiology and mycology for my undergraduate courses, most of my students are women. I would say over half, maybe 60 percent or more might be undergraduate women.

But I still think that once you get outside of entry-level positions, women still have not made it up the ladder. So it’s important for women to strive to advance their education, and getting a master’s degree is one way to walk up that ladder to managerial positions. 

That’s where we’re not seeing equality or the number of women in managerial or upper-level administrative positions. I think that’s still dominated mostly by men. So I have hopes for the future, but women need to take on those challenges, assert themselves, take the leap, and try to get into those positions. Climb the ladder. 

What does “Dress for STEM” mean to you? 

Just being confident and feeling like you’re part of STEM. My background is in biology, but in math or engineering, there’s definitely a lot more men. There’s not that many women in engineering. 

If there are women that are interested in pursuing those fields, it may be hard for them to have the confidence to go on and be one of the only women in the group, but they should do it. Just feel good about yourself and keep your eye on the prize. What do you want to do? And find a way to do it. 

RELATED: ‘Dress For STEM’ Celebrates Women in STEM and Brings Awareness to Gender Gap

How can students get started in the STEM field?

With my undergraduate courses, I always encourage students, especially women students, to try to do independent research with faculty. I would say most of my research students have been women. I’ve had a few men, [but] they’re usually the odd person out.

Often I have women [who] come in, they’ll approach me, or I’ll approach them if I see a good student in my class. I think this person would be a great person to do research, but they’re a little quieter, they’re maybe not thinking about it. I’ll just approach them and say, “Hey, would you like to do research?”

I think that’s another way of gaining confidence for younger women that are still completing their undergraduate education. It’s definitely a really good way to develop confidence in your skills, in yourself, and in your time management. 

In terms of our online programs, because the courses are already developed and we don’t have a research program, you really just go through the curriculum. With the capstone projects, we try to get students to think about that project early and add reminders. I would definitely like to encourage women to challenge themselves on the capstone project and see if they can’t take on something that might be challenging.

RELATED: UW Applied Biotechnology Faculty Shares Tips On How to Make the Most of Your Capstone Project

Want to learn more about UW Applied Biotechnology or UW Biodiversity Conservation and Management? Talk to an enrollment adviser by calling 608-800-6762  or emailing

Programs: Applied Bioinformatics, Applied Biotechnology, Biodiversity Conservation and Management