Spend a few minutes poking around Louis Guillette's personal web site, and you get the sense that he's quite at home in the swamp. After all, the noted reproductive biologist has spent decades examining how environmental pollutants called endocrine disrupters poison alligators, fish, frogs, and other wildlife. But if you really pay attention to the photos, you will also notice that Guillette is rarely far from students whom he is mentoring.
Perhaps memories of his own lack of focus as an undergraduate are what motivate Guillette today. A self-proclaimed "rolling stone," Guillette attended three different colleges before settling down at New Mexico Highlands University—a school he chose because of its proximity to great hiking and rock climbing. But Guillette not only earned a degree in biology there, he launched a lifelong career as a research scientist and teacher.
"My mentor, John Spencer, was so dynamic and so in love with what he did," said Guillette. "It was the first time I saw that you can do what you love and get paid for it."
Guillette didn't have to give up spending time outdoors; he simply incorporated field biology into his work in reproductive endocrinology by studying organisms such as alligators, fish, and frogs. "I have a passionate love of wild places and the interesting and weird animals that live in those places," he explains. And, he was lucky to find graduate mentors, Richard Jones and Hobart Smith at the University of Colorado, who "had a similar passion for field work and shared my curiosity for how animals responded to changing environments."
Internationally recognized for his work in comparative reproductive biology and developmental endocrinology, Guillette has advised such countries as New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, and Botswana on the development of reproductive biology programs for endangered wildlife. At the same time, he has dedicated himself to teaching.
Guillette developed a teaching technique designed to inspire students the way his mentors inspired him. Teaching introductory biology for majors and non-majors, he involves students in "lab meetings" where they discuss topics such as academic honesty, the ethics of research, data collection and communicating science.
Guillette also includes students in his own research, where they learn how science actually is done. Students regularly assist with fieldwork involving the capture of alligators, turtles, frogs, and fish. In the lab, students assist in all aspects of sample analyses. More than 125 students have participated in this hands-on, directed research over the past decade in his laboratory.
"I want them to appreciate the difference between 'studentship,'" which Guillette defines as relatively passive attendance at lectures and labs where the results of experiments are predetermined, "and 'scholarship,' the pursuit of new knowledge," he explained. The University of Florida awarded Guillette its 1998 Teacher/Scholar of the Year Award and its Distinguished Alumni Professor Award in 1999.
Guillette said he owes his success as a researcher to his former mentors. "I know I am where I am today because I have had superb mentors along the way," he said. However, he added, "there's no formal training in how to mentor, and you're expected to learn by osmosis, by watching your own mentor."
As an HHMI professor, Guillette will work to change that by building a multi-generational mentoring program involving high school students, university freshmen and sophomores, more advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. He wants to train young faculty and graduate students to be effective mentors and to increase the numbers of undergraduates and high school students getting hands-on research experience, both in his lab and in the field. "If we can get graduate students to see the value of mentoring undergrads and undergrads learning to mentor high school students, our impact on science will be much greater," said Guillette.