Deborah Donovan , PhD

Professor · she/her


I was born and raised in San Jose, California, and my parents still live in the house where I grew up. I spent the first three years of elementary school at our local Catholic school, then transferred to the public school system in which both my parents taught. In the early ‘70s, my parents built a cabin in a remote area near South Lake Tahoe, so my childhood was heavily influenced by summers and holidays in the mountains. I spent a lot of unstructured time exploring the high Sierras with my brother and sister. I’ve recently reconnected with these beautiful places on backpacking trips with my daughter.

My educational path was not always straight forward. After high school, I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of California Davis, majoring in Physiology. I had planned to become a doctor, but summers working in a hospital changed my mind about that career path. I ended up following in my parents’ footsteps, became a high school science teacher, and taught Chemistry and Physical Science in a large, inner-city school in San Bernardino, CA. Those three years opened my eyes to the hardships that many youth in the US face on a daily basis. Along with my “regular” classes, I also taught science classes for students who had recently immigrated to the US (mostly from Mexico and Vietnam) and had limited English proficiency. I learned a lot about compassion and empathy during that time, and I hope my students felt supported in their education even though I was an incredibly inexperienced teacher.

My husband and I left Southern California when he finished his PhD and I left high school education to complete a master’s degree in Ecology, again at UC Davis. We moved to Bellingham in summer 1991 when my husband was offered a job in the Political Science department at WWU. Although I had planned to return to K12 education, I had discovered my love of research and decided to continue my graduate education. I completed my PhD in the Zoology department at the University of British Columbia in 1998, commuting up to Vancouver for five years. At UBC, I was lucky to work in the lab of Dr. Tom Carefoot and discovered my love of marine systems. Most of my research was done at Bamfield Marine Station on Vancouver Island and our very own Shannon Point Marine Center. I investigated the energetics of locomotion of abalone (a large marine snail) for my doctoral dissertation. My first child was born while I was in grad school and my time management skills increased exponentially!

I’ve worked at WWU since fall 1998. My position is split between the Biology Department and the Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education group, so along with teaching classes in biology I also teach science methods courses (the how-to-teach-science classes) and mentor student teachers. My Biology research focuses on the physiological ecology of marine invertebrates, mostly molluscs. I am especially interested in how biotic and abiotic variables affect an animal’s ability to live successfully in a habitat. My research has taken me to some pretty fabulous places over the years; I’ve completed projects on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand’s south island, Jamaica’s Discovery Bay, and Mexico’s Gulf of California. My current graduate students are working on different aspects of abalone restoration in the Salish Sea, since local populations have declined precipitously in the last two decades. I also do research in Biology Education and I am currently investigating how to form groups in a large-enrollment Biology class to optimize student learning. This line of research has also led to adventure. In 2019, I was invited to present my work at an international conference hosted by the Mongolian National University of Education in Ulaanbaatar. This allowed me to briefly explore the Mongolian countryside and to learn about science education in Mongolia.

When I’m not teaching or doing science, I can be found trail running in the Chuckanut mountains or along Bellingham Bay. I’ve completed four marathons (including Boston in 2008). I’ve also run a few ultra-marathons; my first was the Chuckanut 50K which I ran on my 47th birthday (I somehow took it as a sign!). My less strenuous hobbies include weaving, knitting, and reading. My greatest joy is spending time with my husband and my two grown-up kids.


Research Interests

My research interests are in both Biology and Biology Education.

In Biology, members of my lab focus on the physiological ecology of marine invertebrates. Currently, our work is focused on restoration aquaculture of our native pinto abalone, Haliotis kamtschatkana. Pinto abalone populations have declined precipitously in the last few decades and we collaborate with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and with government agencies to restore populations in the Salish Sea. Click here to watch a short video about my lab's research.

In Biology Education, I investigate different aspects of active learning in a large-enrollment, non-majors Biology class. My research has focused on different ways to place students in working groups to maximize learning. I have also been involved in curriculum mapping to determine how science competencies are taught and assessed in the Biology department. 

My lab is currently full and I won't be accepting new grad students.

Recent Publications

Connell, G.L., D.A. Donovan, and E.J. Theobald. (2023) Forming groups in a large-enrollment biology class: Group permanence matters more than group size. CBE – Life Sciences Education. 22:ar37, 1–15. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.22-08-0172

Donovan, D.A., A.W Clemmons, and A. Crowe. (2022) Applying curriculum mapping to meaningfully track competencies in a biology program. Accepted at Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Clemmons, A.W, D.A. Donovan, E.J. Theobald and A. Crowe. (2022) Using the intended-enacted-experienced curriculum model to map the Vision and Change core competencies in undergraduate biology programs and courses.  CBE – Life Sciences Education. 21:ar6, 1-18 DOI:10.1187/cbe.21-02-0054

Hanuscin, D., D. Donovan, A. Acevedo-Gutiérrez, E. Borda, S. DeBari, J. Melton, T. Le, W. Morrison, and R. Ronca. (2021) Supporting the professional development of teacher educators through shadowing. Int. J. Sci. Math. Educ.

Kuehl, L.M. and D.A. Donovan. (2021) Survival, growth, and radula morphology Haliotis kamtschatkana postlarvae fed six species of benthic diatoms. Aquaculture. in press.

Purce, D.N.S., D.A. Donovan, A.N. Maeda-Martínez, and V. Koch. (2020) Scope for growth of cultivated Pacific and Gulf of California populations of Lion´s Paw scallop Nodipecten subnodosus, and their reciprocal transplants. Lat. Amer. J. Aquat. Res. 48: 538-551.

Mills-Orcutt‡, K.A., J.V. Bouma, and D.A. Donovan. (2020) Outplanting larval pinto abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana kamtschatkana Jonas) as a recovery tool in the Salish Sea. J. Shellf. Res. 39: 381-388.

Donovan, D.A. and Connell, G.L. (2020) Evolution of a student-centered biology class: How systematically testing aspects of class structure has informed our teaching. Invited book chapter in “Active Learning in College Science: The Case for Evidence-Based Practice” J.J. Mintzes and E.M. Walter, eds.

D.A. Donovan, Connell, G.L., and D.Z. Grunspan. (2018) Student learning outcomes and attitudes using three methods of group formation in a non-majors biology class. CBE – Life Sci. Ed.

Connell, G.L., D.A. Donovan, and T.G. Chambers. (2016) Increasing the use of student-centered pedagogies from moderate to high improves student learning and attitudes about biology. CBE – Life Sci. Ed., 15: 1-15

Donovan, D.A., E.J. Borda, D.M. Hanley, and C.J. Landel. (2015) Participation in a multi-institutional curriculum development project changed science faculty knowledge and beliefs about teaching science. J. Sci. Teach. Educ. 26: 193-216.

Donovan, D.A., J.V. Rousseau, I.Y. Salter, L.J. Atkins, A. Acevedo-Gutierrez, R.F. Kratz, C.J. Landel, V. Mullen, P. Pape-Lindstrom. (2014) Life Science and Everyday Thinking. It’s About Time: New York.

Miner, B.G., D.A. Donovan, L.M. Portis*, and T.A. Goulding*. (2013) Whelks induce an effective defense against sea stars. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 493: 195-206.

Donovan, D.A., L.J. Atkins, I.Y. Salter, D.J. Gallagher, R.F. Kratz, J.V. Rousseau, and G.D. Nelson. (2013) Advantages and challenges of using physics curricula as a model for reforming an undergraduate biology course. CBE – Life Sci. Ed., 12: 215-229.

Miner, B.G., D.A. Donovan, and K.E. Andrews*. (2010) Should I stay or should I go: predator and conspecific induced hatching in a marine snail. Oecologia. 163: 69-78.