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Mara McDonald, ‘quintessential boundary crosser,’ dies at 68

July 14, 2016 By Kelly April Tyrrell

Mara McDonald was never without a smile and a kind word. And though the longtime assistant administrator in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Laboratory of Genetics and J.F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution retired from the university last year, she continued to touch lives.

But on July 3, 2016, McDonald died unexpectedly at her Madison home. She was 68.

Photo: Mara McDonald

Mara McDonald

“I will miss her commitment to science and learning and her deep and genuine kindness to everybody around her,” says David Baum, professor of botany and founding director of the Crow Institute.

McDonald was full of passion: for people, for birds, for education, for conservation and more. She held a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles; a master’s degree in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley; and a doctorate in zoology from the University of Florida.

She came to UW–Madison in the early 1990s as a research scientist and joined the administration of the Laboratory of Genetics in 2001. There, she helped develop seminars, journal clubs and reading groups; organized the annual Darwin Day Outreach Symposium; put together workshops for teachers; and worked closely with faculty and students across campus.

“Mara was one of the first people I met on campus outside of the vet school when I arrived in 2008,” says Tony Goldberg, professor of pathobiological sciences at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “She was instrumental in making me feel welcome and part of the evolution community.”

“Mara was a quintessential boundary crosser, bringing together many who otherwise would not come to know each other,” echoes Paul Williams, professor emeritus of plant pathology.

In 2001, McDonald founded the Biocore Prairie Bird Observatory near Picnic Point, monitoring bird populations, providing students field experience, performing research and conducting outreach.

“Mara was always willing to train an interested student or member of the public,” says Baum.

“I personally was always amazed by her passion for science. Mara took the term lifelong learner to a whole new level. … I’m glad I got to know her.”

Andrew Hasley

McDonald was also a lifelong student herself, taking classes and workshops in science communication, ethics, educational counseling, conservation biology and evolutionary medicine while employed at UW–Madison. She performed robust service for the university as a member of multiple committees and was an active member at First Unitarian Society of Madison.

McDonald was also a member of the Audubon Society, Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, the International Crane Foundation and the Aldo Leopold Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. She spent many years as a volunteer with the Meriter Hospital Special Care Nursery Cuddler Program.

“Mara was always such a giving person, and so very strongly loyal to the evolution community on campus,” says Tom Givnish, Henry Gleason Professor of Botany.

McDonald’s passing leaves a void those close to her say will be difficult to fill.

“Students will miss her as well,” says Andrew Hasley, a graduate student in genetics. “She’s helped out a lot of us over the years, whether as part of Darwin Day planning, bird banding, grant/fellowship prep, or just her checking up on you in passing. Pretty much every grad student in the genetics or evolution community talked to Mara at some point.”

He adds: “I personally was always amazed by her passion for science. Mara took the term lifelong learner to a whole new level. You saw the same passion in practice with bird banding. That kind of attention to scientific rigor combined with incredible care for and understanding of the birds themselves is something I’m glad I had the chance to observe. I’m glad I got to know her.”

A memorial service is planned for Thursday, July 14, at First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, at 4:30 p.m.