Each year, Deby Lee Cassill, a USF biology professor at the St. Petersburg campus, starts the semester by telling her class the same thing.
“Biology is all about survival and reproductive strategy,” she tells them. “That means we are going to be talking about food and sex the whole semester. What other subjects would be more interesting?”
However, The Weekly Planet concludes that it’s Cassill who makes the subject interesting. The magazine recently selected Cassill for Best Professor for 2005 in their annual Best of the Bay newspaper addition.
“I was thrilled with the Best Professor title,” Cassill said. “It was unexpected. It was not so much a vote of the peers, but by a student. It was very rewarding.”
The article said, “Dr. Cassill is a down-to-earth, energetic and engaging professor,” and that she was selected for her skillful teaching aptitude that makes class into a fun experience.
Her ability to relay tedious biological ideas and information without losing the student’s attention adds to her qualifications for Best of the Bay, it said.
“When I started lecturing in front of students – I noticed the students started falling asleep,” Cassill said. “I was either going to quit graduate school or find a different way to teach. (Lecturing) is effective, but not for me. So, the next time I did a biology lab, I started bringing in dead animals and dissecting them right then, just to make the lectures much more hands on. I became part entertainer as well as educator. I just figured that if the kids are falling asleep, they really aren’t learning anything very well.”
Cassill earned her BA degree in psychology and her doctorate in biology. She has more than a decade of experience in teaching and has written numerous science publications. She also receives multiple grants for her research, most of which focus on fire ants, an ongoing project often involving her students.
Bob Wang, the St. Petersburg lab manager, said, “A lot of students come into the lab working on her ant project, and I help her in setting up the lab. She has a lot of students, and she interacts with students very well.”
Cassill is not shy about expressing her excitement for her fire ant project.
“Before I graduated, I went into this insect lab to see if it was something I wanted to pursue, and it was small and kind of smelly,” she said. “It was a small little closet, with ants in plastic bins on shelves. I grabbed one of the colonies, put it under a microscope and focused the scope. All of the sudden, under high magnification, there were all these interesting creatures with tiny heads, eyes and legs. They were walking around and communicating with each other. I thought, ‘Wow, this is fascinating. I’ll never be bored again.’ So it was sort of a love affair at first sight.”
This kind of fervor and love for teaching is what earns her an attendance rate higher than 92 percent.
Leilani Polk, The Weekly Planet events editor who selected Cassill, had first-hand experience with Cassill when she was a student at USF.
“I worked on a project with Dr. Cassill through the journalism program, when I was going to school there,” Polk said. “I was doing a visual arts program, and one of my freelance assignments was a photo project with Dr. Cassill. I went to her class once or twice a week to take pictures of her labs, both her field trips and her indoor and outdoor labs. I got a feel for her teaching technique. I really thought she made the class interesting. I felt that I learned something even though I wasn’t actually taking her class.”
Cassill hopes that she influences students’ love of biology.
“I hope that I have made a lasting impact,” she said. “All I can say is that I get about two dozen requests a year to write letters of recommendation for students who have been turned on to biology before they had me or turned on to it after they had me. (Others who) have gone on to graduate school or gotten jobs, occasionally come in and say that they really enjoyed my class.”