February 29, 2024
Florida Icon: Deby Cassill

Photo: Cliff McBride/USF

"The lab is my happy place," says University of South Florida research biologist Cassill.

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Florida Icon: Deby Cassill

University of South Florida research biologist, St. Petersburg, age 76.

Art Levy | 12/11/2023

At age 3 or 4, I’m out in the garden with my dolls and there are insects everywhere. Later, the dolls went away and I started collecting butterflies and beetles, but the thing that really intrigued me were the ants. I didn’t collect them, but I could sit there and see them meeting each other, having a brief interaction, and then move on. I was fascinated.

Being an introvert, I avoid social interactions, but that’s not true in the classroom. I love teaching. Teaching is another way of understanding the world because you have to, in so many words, tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. My students, by asking questions, have changed the way I think about biology. Teaching has helped me better understand biology.

My brother was 15 and I was 14. He had gone out and hunted a rabbit with a bow and arrow — and he killed one and brought it home. I remember Mom saying: ‘Oh good, we’ll skin it and cook it for dinner.’ My brother had no interest in that. I remember him kind of just not feeling well and he went to his bedroom. But I got out the scissors and cut it open. I had expected green goo. It’s what you find when you cut open a caterpillar, which I had done before to see what was inside. Cutting open the rabbit, I saw absolutely gorgeous organs, beautifully separated from each other. That was my moment of wanting to become a biologist. I fell in love with the inner organs and workings of a living organism.

Why do humans cooperate? What is it that makes us help a neighbor? Economic models are all about competition for scarce resources. They can’t explain cooperation. Kin selection tries to explain cooperation. It fails. I’m figuring it out. I’m driven to explain the evolution of cooperative behavior — altruism — and why we give to those in need. I’ll be publishing a series of papers over the next eight years that will nail this down.

My son, Dan, was a great kid. He loved fighting for the littler kid. He was a risk taker. When he was 17, he was in a single-car accident, skidded in the rain, hit a tree and was in a coma. I got the call. I go to the hospital and I’m met by a religious person. They’re not expecting him to survive, but he did. Eventually, they transferred him to a rehab center. Over the course of seven weeks, they’re rehabbing him and his eyes are beginning to open. Every Thursday, as a family, we would always watch Seinfeld, and the show was on in his room in the rehab center. I could see him tracking the show with his eyes. I’m watching him watch Seinfeld. It was exciting, but bizarre. The episode was on Kramer not wanting to ever be in a vegetative state and Kramer says if he’s ever in a hospital like that, he wants them to pull the plug! I can still remember that line. Afterwards, I start to leave and Dan said: ‘Mom, where am I?’ And we started having a chat. The next morning, he said to me: ‘Mom, get me out of here.’ Later, he wrote a book about the experience. It’s called The Seinfeld Coma Kid’s Amazing Afterlife.

Working in academics is such a rarified privilege and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to continue to work in something I love. I wouldn’t call it a passion. I call it an obsession. That’s why I created the Cassill Endowed Scholarship in Biology to fund USF graduate students. I want to give back to the university as a thank you for the privilege of working here.

Biology wasn’t my first career. I was interested in psychology and worked for a time in mental health. Then, I got a master’s in public administration. I liked numbers and began working in medical services. I analyzed workers’ compensation data in Florida. Every medical bill produced by an injured worker came to our office. I took that information, massaged it with a bunch of coders — using Fortran mind you — and presented our findings to the insurance commissioner every year.

My husband and I and my son, who was about 10 at the time, we were watching a nature documentary by David Attenborough. Who doesn’t love David Attenborough? This was the late 1980s and I’m like: ‘I want to be doing those documentaries! I don’t want to be watching them!’ And my husband said: ‘You know, it’s not too late.’ Bless his heart. Bam! That’s all I needed. I enrolled in FSU and started taking courses at night to become a biologist and I finally left my high-paying job in the medical services office. This was an opportunity for me at the age of 40 to totally switch gears.

I’d like to see building the Florida Wildlife Corridor become a primary mission for Florida. Otherwise, we’ll just become a state of Main Streets and gated communities.

We (scientists) have marginalized ourselves by not speaking in an understandable way. Nature and Science, the two best journals in my field, are now requiring writing our research in a way that it can be accessed by the layperson. It’s about time. One seven-syllable word can be better stated through more simple words. The science has to be digestible.

I read Carl Hiaasen. I read Randy Wayne White. I read murder mysteries. John Sandford, I love his Minnesota series. I binge on Netflix now and then, but really I’m here in the lab, 12 hours a day, five-and-a-half days a week. I just need an afternoon off to go to the movies and a day off just to veg and do laundry, but mainly I’m in the lab.

*Editor’s note: Dan Cassill died in 2014 at the age of 34 due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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