At the age of 40 and nearly 20 years into a career in health care administration, a nature documentary seismically shifted the life of Deby Cassill.
“It was a David Attenborough documentary on African wildlife, and I realized sitting there that I didn’t just want to watch science, I wanted to do science,” Cassill said.
Shortly thereafter, she went back to college to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology. By the time she was 50, she had earned a doctorate in the field and in 2001, Cassill was hired on as the first full-time biology professor on the USF St. Petersburg campus.
Cassill said the university has provided her with a wonderful opportunity to explore her passion. Now she is providing the institution with a $1 million estate gift to create the Cassill Endowed Scholarship in Biology to aid the next generation of aspiring biologists.
“It is such a privilege to work here, and for more than 20 years I have been able to teach courses in a way that I believe are great learning experiences for students while following my research instincts,” Cassill said. “I thought this would be a great way to give back to this institution by providing scholarships for students, including older students who are returning after a career change like me, to find their passion in biology.”
Cassill has made the most of her midlife career change. Her lab on campus is filled with creatures and fossils that offer opportunities for real-world research experiences to a number of students. Ants, spiders, crabs, turtle shells, corals and other live and fossilized specimens are found throughout. Cassill has been collecting specimens for two decades and counting to bring her lessons to life for both undergraduate and graduate classes.
"It is truly special and says a lot about a place when a faculty member makes a gift such as this to benefit the university they have been a part of for so long,” said Christian Hardigree, regional chancellor of the USF St. Petersburg campus. “Deby's gift will go toward doing what she has done so exceptionally well, provide incredible learning and research opportunities for students."
Though she is fascinated with biology as a whole, Cassill’s expertise is in ants and cooperative social systems. She has been driven over the years to try and answer one of the defining questions in biology: why are we kind to strangers? By studying the social systems and behaviors of ants and documenting the similarities between ants and other highly social animals, such as humans, she seeks to unearth that answer while contributing to the scientific literature on altruism.
Most recently, Cassill has turned her curiosity to the diverse rearing practices of animals and why certain species spend decades caring for their young, such as elephants and whales, while others abandon their offspring at birth, like fish and turtles. She is in the midst of publishing a series of journal articles around her maternal risk management model, which looks at how predation and scarcity pressures from natural selection influence how mothers invest in offspring quantity and quality.
Cassill credits such research for making her a better teacher, and in turn, her students for making her a better researcher.
"The importance of teaching has been that students actually help me learn and I get to tell stories I love about my research that connects with students and engages them enough to come into the lab and work on projects,” Cassill said. “They are so hungry for a real experience, not just learning from lecture but learning by doing.”