November 30, 2023

Press Release

Biology professor who made midlife career change gives $1 million estate gift to USF St. Petersburg campus

| 10/12/2022

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Oct. 12, 2022) – Deby Cassill credits the USF St. Petersburg campus with giving her the opportunity she needed to explore her passion for science, trading in a nearly 20-year career in health care administration to become a biology professor.

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 was 40 when a David Attenborough documentary on African wildlife inspired her to make a dramatic career change. 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.

"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."

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.

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.

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.”

The University of South Florida, a high-impact global research university dedicated to student success, generates an annual economic impact of more than $6 billion.  Over the past 10 years, no other public university in the country has risen faster in U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings than USF. Serving more than 50,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, USF is designated as a Preeminent State Research University by the Florida Board of Governors, placing it in the most elite category among the state’s 12 public universities. USF has earned widespread national recognition for its success graduating under-represented minority and limited-income students at rates equal to or higher than white and higher income students. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference. Learn more at

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