Forget Tony, Oscar and Grammy. Mason Professor Patrick Gillevet’s work with high school students earned him a “Tommy” award from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), which is ranked as one of the top public high schools in the nation.
The Fairfax County high school gives the award to individuals or corporations that have helped science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education on a national level and shared that knowledge with TJHSST.
Gillevet, an environmental science and policy professor, knows firsthand how essential mentors can be to aspiring scientists.
“One of the watershed events of my life was when I helped a professor, while I was an undergraduate, set up his lab,” he says. “That really changed things for me. It was the one issue that made me go to graduate school. I know how important mentoring is.”
The lead scientist for Mason’s biocomplexity and diversity group since 1996, Gillevet also is the director of Mason’s MicroBiome Analysis Center where he and his team of researchers are studying bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa within the human body.
He’s guided 42 high school students and teachers since 1993, some of whom continued their research into college. High school students work with him for a semester in his lab on Mason’s Prince William Campus.
Alexander Kim became fixated on a group of lobster-sized freshwater prawns while a senior at TJHSST in 2009. He wanted to explore genetic analysis on the prawns but thought he had little chance of doing so. That is, until he met Gillevet.
“Regardless of the fact that his area of focus lay with microbial genetics rather than anything to do with prawns, Dr. Gillevet, without a moment of hesitation, opened to me the resources of his lab, his years of scientific wisdom, his boundless, good-natured patience, and a heartfelt desire to nurture a young researcher’s curiosity,” Kim says. “I can’t thank him enough for all those evenings he stayed far later than he ought to have while I finished DNA extractions, and those many times we spent poring through evolutionary trees and manuscript drafts and blurry PCR bands together.”
Kim continues to study the jumbo crustaceans as part of his undergraduate thesis in organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, where he is a rising senior.
“[Gillevet] really is all about doing good science,” says Lisa Lyle Wu, director of the Oceanography and Geophysical Systems Lab at TJHSST. “He wants to get right down to what the problem is. He pulls that out of the students. He is not only good as a researcher, but he’s good at communicating his research. The students are comfortable asking him questions.”
Gillevet’s enthusiasm for the students’ work and generosity with his time and talent give budding scientists a chance to learn how a real lab works, Wu says. “They assume all the scientists know everything out there.”
Not so, Gillevet says. “When students go into the lab, they see that the data in the textbook is somewhat soft. It’s not exact fact. It’s interpretation of data. It’s also good for them if they can get something done and turn it into a paper. Then they can see how research looks before publication. But really the issue is to expose them to research and see if this is what they want to do. There are a lot of students who realize this is not what they want to do.”
The high school students aren’t the only ones learning; they’ve taught Gillevet.
Gillevet and famed swan researcher William Sladen have worked together to study tundra swans, trumpeter swans and a hybrid of the two for a decade. For his part, Gillevet searched for the molecular markers that would identify tundra, trumpeter and the hybrid. Gillevet’s students used the latest technology to run “50 years of DNA genetic sequencing in an afternoon.” Their data showed the tundra, trumpeter and hybrid swans may be the same species, not separate ones, as Gillevet had surmised. At first, Gillevet says he thought the students made a mistake.
“But the students weren’t messing up,” he says. “I was wrong, not the students. Their results were correct. My interpretation, my assumption, was wrong. This is one example where the mentor learns from the student.”
It’s this kind of openness that makes Gillevet such a standout mentor, Wu adds. “The students are seeing that science is not a simple process,” she says.
Gillevet also hones his teaching skills. At Mason, he typically works with graduate students. “It’s good for me to get the TJ students so I can step down and explain. You get these ‘aha!’ moments with kids — that’s the big thing.”
Both Mason and TJHSST benefit from the mentorship. “They have some fantastic teachers there,” Gillevet says. “They can say that we’re helping them, but I have some high school students here who are better prepared to work in the lab than some graduate students.”