Stacy Donovan, PhD, associate professor of biology and forensic science, helps students find their true paths.
Not many biology students would expect to play a game from TV host Ellen DeGeneres during class. Come to think of it, there probably aren’t many professors who would encourage it, either.
But Stacy Donovan, PhD, isn’t your typical associate professor of biology and forensic science.
“Biology can be terminology heavy, and I thought, ‘How can we have a conversation if everybody doesn’t even know what the terms are yet?’” Donovan explains. “I constantly try to think of creative ways—high-tech, low-tech, whatever—to get students engaged—that’s the bottom line.”
Employing DeGeneres’ app Heads Up! certainly is one way to increase class engagement and excitement. On television, DeGeneres describes words, names and phrases that she reads on an iPad held above celebrities’ heads; the celebrities then frantically guess the secret words from DeGeneres’ clues. In class, Donovan adapts the concept to biology vocabulary, watching as students use the Heads Up! app to find innovative ways of describing “mitosis” or “cytokinesis.” Eliciting laughter and plenty of light bulb moments, the exercise pushes students to connect more to the biology terms and to each other—and Donovan doesn’t sit out.
“I’m always challenging students,” Donovan says. “But they know that I’ll put myself out there for these things, too. Recently, I showed them an interpretative dance as a way to learn movements that cells and tissues go through during early development to form body plans. It’s important to model stepping outside of our comfort zone.”
Immersing students in technology and interaction to foster learning is Donovan’s passion. As an Apple Teacher who has been recognized for embracing Maryville’s expansive Digital World program and helping students make the most of the free iPad they receive as undergraduates, she facilitates an active learning environment through an arsenal of digital tools designed to help Maryville University students understand more about their coursework, their futures and themselves.
Donovan’s unique mix of tech resources and empathy resonates with her students. She’s particularly passionate about mentoring young women as they pursue careers in the STEM fields, and she serves as faculty adviser to the Maryville women’s golf team and Empower, a student-led, feminist social justice group that aims to focus on issues across the gender spectrum. Donovan says her commitment to guiding students can be traced back to meaningful interactions with a number of educators over the years—especially a chemistry professor during college.
“She would do a lot of outreach at schools and be involved with what she called ‘mall shows’—setting up shop inside a mall and doing hands-on chemistry experiments for people of all ages,” Donovan says. “Seeing her give back to the community and sharing her passion has a profound impact on me. It’s important to inspire the next generation of scientists, especially girls. For me, this is a legacy I want to leave behind.”
Donovan’s passion for inspiring women has meant the world for students like Danelle Hale, a senior biochemistry major who’s been learning from Donovan since freshman year.
Hale says Donovan, who serves as her adviser, helped her participate in a summer research project and has walked her through how her future studies and career may take form.
“She definitely helped me become more involved in my classes. There’s a work-study opportunity on campus to work in the labs, and she helped me get going with that,” Hale says. “It’s really changed the way I see my classes and has helped me build a good relationship with just about all of my professors.”
Donovan continues mentoring students after they’ve left Maryville. Abeer Butt, ’15, who graduated with a degree in biomedical sciences, was recently invited to interview for a cancer biology program at a prestigious graduate school. Nervous about the experience, Butt texted Donovan and asked to meet as soon as possible.
“It was super late but she still sat with me for two hours,” Butt says. “She went through every person who was going to interview me, asked me questions, did a mock interview and gave me insight on how to talk. And she doesn’t expect anything in return. She’s happy to sit down with us even though we’re not in her class anymore. Just completely selfless.”
From encouraging community engagement to offering snacks during tests to working one-on-one with students, Donovan knows everything she does can help students develop confidence in their academics and in themselves.
“The things you do that you think are small? You never know how those might affect somebody,” she says. “I just try to be real for the students and make each day count.”