In Memoriam: Joann Otto

Otto came to Western from Purdue in 2004 to chair the Biology Department and helmed the department until she retired in 2016

On Friday, March 22, WWU Biology Professor Emerita Joann Otto unexpectedly passed away at Western’s Wade King Student Recreation Center.

Otto came to Western in 2004 after an illustrious career at Purdue University and was the chair of the Biology Department from 2004 until she retired in 2016. A much beloved and respected teacher and department chair, her legacy is a department with a passion for engaging students, alumni and friends and establishing long-term relationships for Biology and the College of Science and Engineering. In honor of her work, the Joann Otto Microscope Endowment was formed at Western upon her retirement to enhance, upgrade and purchase new microscopic equipment for the Biology Department, a cause near to her heart.

In 2012, Otto was named one of 40 inaugural Vision and Change Leadership Fellows of the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE) program. PULSE was created and co-funded by the NIH, NSF, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. For a dozen years, Otto was a leader in the PULSE community, focusing on the PULSE Ambassadors and Regional Networks “circles” and was an active recruiter of new cohorts of Fellows. PULSE Fellows develop and implement models for improving undergraduate life-sciences education. As part of the inaugural cohort, Otto was selected by an expert panel from more than 250 highly competitive applicants to be a part of this movement. The impressive power of PULSE is due to the wisdom and energy of Otto and a handful of other Fellows.

Words cannot fully capture what Joann meant to me.

Emily Borda

Fond memories

The news of Otto's passing was met with both sadness and fond memories from her campus friends, colleagues and peers.

"Words cannot fully capture what Joann meant to me," said Emily Borda, director of Western's Science, Math and Technology Education (SMATE) program. "She was closely involved in projects to enhance inclusive, high-quality teaching in the sciences at WWU, including leading an Inclusive Excellence project from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute called 'Advancing Excellence and Equity in Science.' Joann was a champion of broadening participation in the sciences, especially for people of marginalized status. Joann led by example and was a wonderful role model, leader, mentor, and friend to me and to many other faculty and staff at WWU.”

Biology Department Chair and Professor Lynn Pillitteri said she was still struggling with the news of Otto's sudden passing.

"Joann was a good friend that I got to know better after her retirement, and I really enjoyed that she was always willing to 'commiserate' on some of the trials of being chair," said Pillitteri. “Joann was chair of the department when I was hired in 2009, and I very much appreciated her direct approach to running the department and mentoring new faculty. Her passion for inclusive teaching was evident during her time as chair and in all my interactions with her after retirement, that interest never waned.

“I'm happy that her love of science and student success will live on through the impact she has made from her consistent leadership in so many diverse organizations. She was an inspiration and will be missed by many," Pillitteri said.

WWU College of Science and Engineering Dean Janelle Leger said Otto’s passing was being keenly felt throughout CSE.

“It's difficult to overstate the impact and importance of Dr. Joann Otto's work at Western to both the Biology Department and to the College of Science and Engineering as a whole. She was a constant force for positive change in all aspects of her work, which continued well past her retirement. We will miss her deeply, and her legacy will continue to be felt and honored across the College for years to come.”

Biology Professor Merrill Peterson said he knew he had big shoes to fill when he took over as department chair from Otto in 2016.

“Joann was hired to chair a department that, at the time, was financially mismanaged, used outdated teaching strategies, and was woefully unequipped to teach modern biology – in short, we were a mess. Her leadership transformed us into a model department on campus and lifted us to national prominence in college biology education. That she accomplished this during a period of unprecedented growth in student enrollment in the major is mind boggling," Peterson said. “Students today reap many benefits of the cultural shift she authored, whether through the pervasive use of evidence-based teaching practices in the courses they take or through the many authentic research experiences available to them both in the lab and in the field. Her legacy is truly remarkable.”

Vital leadership at an important time

WWU Provost Brad Johnson echoed Peterson’s sentiments, and said that Otto was the perfect person to assume leadership of the department at a crucial time.

Her leadership transformed us into a model department on campus and lifted us to national prominence in college biology education.

Merrill Peterson

“Joann joined the newly-constructed College of Sciences and Technology as an external hire for the chair of Biology in 2004, coming for the explicit purpose of helping the Department of Biology navigate a turbulent period. She not only provided stability and positive leadership for Biology, but she also joined a new Dean’s Advisory Council, a leadership team for the new College," said Johnson. “I served with Joann as a fellow department chair from the time she arrived until I left to join the Dean’s Office in 2014; she continued to serve on the DAC until her retirement. As a fellow chair, and especially as dean, I always found Joann to be an experienced and helpful voice, always thinking about the good of our students, and always offering thoughtful solutions to the many challenges arising in her department and in the College.

“She was always on the lookout for opportunities, and found creative ways to take advantage of them. I will miss her vision and counsel; her impact is certainly still felt,” said Johnson.

Joann was also a member and supporter of the San Juan Preservation Trust for almost 30 years, and over time became a strong advocate for the conservation of the San Juan Islands and a leader of the organization. Her early efforts helped in the protection of Vendovi and Jack Islands, and countless other projects throughout the archipelago.

In lieu of flowers, Joann’s family asks that anyone wanting to honor Joann’s memory consider giving to one of these three organizations: the Troutdale Historical Society, San Juan Preservation Trust, or Western’s Joann Otto Microscope Endowment