Lou Guillette vividly remembers the first time his undergraduate mentor gave him the keys to the lab and asked him to prepare some growth medium for an experiment the next day.
"That was a telling moment in my professional career," says Guillette. "Not only was he trusting me with thousands of dollars of equipment, he was also trusting me to mix this stuff up correctly. Otherwise, the whole experiment would be blown.
"I can remember working in the lab that night, thinking ‘I'm a scientist. This is the real thing.' It was like I'd psychologically jumped some monster hurdle. Not only did I want to do it, I could do it."
That experience has inspired Guillette to provide as many similar opportunities to UF undergraduates as possible. His teaching mantra is "Scholarship, not studentship," and he practices what he preaches. Over the last decade, more than 150 undergraduates have benefited from Guillette's hands-on, directed-research mentoring. Now, through a $1 million, four-year grant from HHMI, Guillette has created the Group Advantaged Training of Research, or G.A.T.O.R., program to fine-tune that approach for a larger audience.
"Everyone has to be a student for a certain period of time, but at some point you have to transition to the pursuit of knowledge yourself," he says. "The undergraduate students in my laboratory are exposed to our research in a way few students experience. They help capture alligators, turtles, frogs, and fish. In the lab, they assist in all aspects of sample analysis." Guillette manages as many as 15 undergraduates at a time through a system that relies heavily on his graduate students. "If each graduate student is responsible for several undergraduates, I can accommodate a lot more undergraduates in my lab and the graduate students can gain valuable experience in mentoring," Guillette says.
Postdoctoral researcher Thea Edwards, who oversees the G.A.T.O.R. program, is clearly proud of the students she mentored while pursuing her Ph.D. with Guillette. "These students were amazing and I would not have been able to complete my research without them," she says. "Of the 20, five went on to graduate school and five to medical or dental school."
Although he easily delegates authority, Guillette's door is always open. Ed Orlando, now an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University, says that he and other of Guillette's UF graduate students knew they could call on him any time. "He was available almost seven days a week, 24 hours a day to answer questions and offer advice," says Orlando. "He never said no and I expect that 25 years from now he will be doing the same."
One of Guillette's goals with the G.A.T.O.R. program is to make his teaching philosophy and strategy "exportable."
"Does it work effectively only in my lab under my research conditions, or can other labs in other disciplines run this way also? We want to optimize this mentoring for any given research setting," he says.
Guillette also puts a high premium on scientific communication, especially with graduate students. "Some of our students have a tough time explaining what they do, even to their parents."
He has developed a new class—"Communicating Complexity in Science"—focused on everything from creating effective scientific posters to dealing with the media to making science come alive for high schoolers. During the semester, he brings in prominent scientists, journalists, and policymakers to meet with students. "I think one of the reasons we're having such intense debates in our society about scientific questions like stem cells, global warming, and evolution is that we in the scientific community are expecting somebody else to interpret all of our data." In other words, it's as if the scientists—even though they understand the phenomena best—are unable or unwilling to do the interpreting themselves.