A gifted researcher says teaching yields “magic moments”
Thomas Gilmore, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology, is the 2014 United Methodist Scholar/Teacher of the Year. Photos by Cydney Scott
In Thomas Gilmore’s molecular biology lab course this semester, each of the 39 graduate students has a different task in a group examination of how an important protein in sea anemones normally works. The classwork includes both gene cloning and using molecular techniques to make mutations in the protein. And, by design, neither the professor nor the students will know how their experiment turns out until term’s end.
Each time Gilmore teaches the course, he picks a different topic and uses what he characterizes as a crowdsourcing approach to specific questions—in this case, questions related to his work as a researcher into the causes of cancer and autoimmune diseases. To the College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and School of Medicine adjunct professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, the aim of the course is twofold. It gives students hands-on experience in laboratory techniques and an understanding of the efforts and rewards of scientific inquiry.
“We’re really doing a research project, and I don’t know what outcome is,” he says. “And yet if I design it in a certain way, we’re sure to get an outcome.”
The determination to deepen students’ understanding of science is a hallmark of Gilmore’s career, both in his lab and in courses like the Carcinogenesis elective he coteaches with Kimberly McCall, a CAS biology professor. It has fueled his efforts as director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) for the past seven years, where he has overseen a tripling of the budget and increased participation. And it is a strong impetus as he continues research begun 26 years ago into the protein nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-κB), which scientists believe plays an important role in inflammation and responses to stress that may lead to a wide range of diseases, including a variety of cancers.
Gilmore’s dedication to research and instruction has earned him the 2014 United Methodist Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award. Endowed by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, the award recognizes outstanding scholarship and contributions to the learning arts and the University.
“Professor Gilmore has, for nearly three decades, earned distinction as a renowned researcher, an exemplary classroom teacher, and a gifted mentor, helping to inspire and instill a lifelong love of scientific discovery for thousands of promising students and junior faculty,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. “Professor Gilmore has truly given of himself throughout his career, and the result is a field and an institution that are better because of him. We are proud to count him as a member of the BU faculty and community and congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.”
Gilmore, winner of the University’s highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, in 2009, says he is appreciative of the award. “At an institution and a department that has put forth high standards for scholarship and teaching there are many worthy recipients,” Gilmore says. “When we spend long hours in the lab or our offices and libraries, it’s nice to know those efforts don’t go unappreciated.”
He says his efforts to relate to students and staff stems from his upbringing in Pennsylvania. He learned from his parents, neither of whom attended college, how to talk to people from different backgrounds.
“They know people from broad walks of life, and they are pretty good at engaging people at all levels. That is what I feel, too,” he says. “I like to engage people and figure out what makes them tick and cooperate in the learning process. That is fun to me.”
Jean Morrison, BU provost, presenting Gilmore with the award during the annual Faculty Assembly March 19.
The learning process in the lab is different from in the classroom, and Gilmore tailors his approach to each. In the lab, keeping researchers motivated is the goal no matter what their level. “That can be a difficult task, because 95 percent of what you do doesn’t work,” he says. “You have to live for those moments when things start working. And there, it’s my job to keep people motivated and engaged in their research at a high level.”
Students give Gilmore high marks, and many graduate students say that his biology research lab has been helpful in their careers. “My bio lab was one of the most useful classes that I took at BU, and I left the class with so many skills that prepared me for the job that I have now,” writes a recent graduate.
Gilmore thought seriously about becoming a veterinarian (he was accepted to a program at Cornell), but chose to study liberal arts at Princeton. He majored in English (his senior thesis was on William Faulkner), but took several biology classes as a junior and senior. After graduation, he moved to California to write fiction and poetry before taking a job as a lab researcher, where he decided to pursue graduate studies in biology, earning a doctorate in 1984 from the University of California, Berkeley.
Cancer research was growing rapidly at the time as scientists began to understand that mutations in specific genes could lead to certain types of cancers, Gilmore says—and that fascinated him. It was the focus of his research both at Berkeley and as a postdoctoral fellow with Nobel Laureate Howard Temin at the University of Wisconsin–Madison before he joined the BU faculty in 1987.
Gilmore first began studying NF-κB in Temin’s lab, where researchers had discovered that the protein was made by a virus that caused lymphoma in chickens. “I started studying that and it seemed kind of obscure at the time,” he says. “Shortly after I got to BU, it was clear that protein was a major player in many types of animal and human cancer, as well as being very important in immune responses and immune cell types of cancers.”
Since then, the study of the protein has exploded into what he describes as an industry—there have been more than 50,000 scientific papers published on NF-κB—and Gilmore’s introductory website is one of BU’s most popular. Researchers today are examining the protein’s role in inflammation and in organisms’ responses to stress in a growing range of maladies, he says, from aging to headaches to kidney disease to cancer.
For example, he has been working for several years with John Finnerty, a CAS associate professor of biology, and Trevor Siggers, a CAS assistant professor of biology, on a project to study NF-κB’s pathways in marine organisms like sea anemones and coral. “What we’re finding is that it is very likely that NF-κB controls some very basic immune or stress response,” Gilmore says. “So, who cares about that? One of the reasons to care is that it wouldn’t be surprising if NF-κB were to control processes that are related to the coral reef’s demise.”
The hypothesis ties neatly into the experiment he designed for his spring semester lab. The molecular biology students’ experiments will look at the baseline behavior of the protein in sea anemones, potentially contributing to the overall direction of the professors’ research.
Gilmore says he took on the directorship of UROP at the urging of the previous director, his friend Mary S. Erskine, a CAS professor of biology, who died in 2007. This summer will be his last as director. He says it’s time for new blood to lead the program.
While he came to BU for the opportunity to do research, Gilmore says, “one of the things that constantly surprises…is how satisfying teaching can actually be. You come in as a hotshot researcher, out of a postdoctoral fellowship and you think, I’m going to make my mark in the world in research. And of course we think about that a lot. But teaching can be a very satisfying experience also. When you realize you have inspired somebody to learn, that is a magic moment.”
“This year’s nominating process yielded a truly exceptional class of candidates,” according to Morrison, and Gilmore’s “international renown as a researcher, his transformative leadership of UROP, and his celebration by both colleagues and students as a tireless advocate for their success make him an outstanding selection this year.”