Awakening a Love for Science

By Lori Putnam

Professor Gillespie conducts an experiment

The son of scientists, it would seem that Dr. Blake Gillespie was destined to pursue a career in science. However, for the Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, a scientific career wasn’t always part of the equation. “I had an interest in literature and fine arts, mostly drawing and print making,” shares Gillespie. “I would have liked to pursue that had I not followed this path.”

According to Gillespie, his career change was no accident. “My sister is a modern dance choreographer. She is an artist. And following her career made me realize that the arts actually require more discipline than science.”

Instead, Gillespie found beauty in the intricate structures of molecules. Beginning with his first molecular biology class in college, he became inspired by the artistic talent required to represent molecules far too small to see with the naked eye. From those initial drawings, Gillespie found a powerful way to combine his love of art with an interest in how nature works that he inherited from his parents.

The (Almost) Million Dollar Question

What would you do with a million dollars? Not many of us have the opportunity to answer that question, but Gillespie – still writing the beginning chapters of his career – already has. This fall he was honored with the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development award. The award, a recognition of Gillespie’s teaching and research, is also the source of a five-year grant totaling $920,552. (see pg 5 for full article on grant award.)

Gillespie plans to invest that money in awakening a love of science in others.

“This grant will impact my students on many levels,” reflects Gillespie. “It will fund my student researchers as well as students who are working in the lab for credit. It also allows me to reduce my teaching load so that I can work with students to make our research program viable.”

And it is the latter, exposing more students to the research process, that he feels will draw more students into the sciences. According to Gillespie, you don’t capture a student’s interest in science by having them sit in class. As a teacher, he wants to introduce them to science in a way that has them asking questions about the natural world. And Gillespie practices what he preaches. Last March, he supervised nine students on a trip to Maui to conduct field research involving humpback whales. Gillespie collaborated with CI colleague and behavioral ecologist Dr. Rachel Cartwright to explore how whale behavior correlates to the animals’ physiology.

“These research projects allow students to design questions they can experimentally address,” says Gillespie. “Students are actually doing hypothesis-driven science, and working hard to collect data which they will spend the rest of the course analyzing. It’s great experience to have at this point in their careers.”

The Role of the Teacher-Scholar

According to the NSF guidelines, the CAREER award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar. Channel Islands faculty already strive to excel in this role, says Gillespie. “To me, a scientist is a teacher-scholar. The learning never stops. You are always asking new questions and trying to solve new problems.” How a scientist then connects this learning to teaching is very important, he observes, and it’s the central notion of being a successful teacher.

Gillespie’s own research examines how proteins behave, and the rules that govern how chains of proteins are organized. Within this research lies the potential to discover how proteins that fail to organize properly can give rise to disorders such as mad cow disease or Alzheimer’s.

So as Gillespie wrestles with his own research questions, he continues to spark new interest in scientific discovery within his students. He aspires to build a summer research program for students from Hueneme High School and reach potential science majors much earlier in their school careers. Through his eyes, perhaps this next generation of scientists will also see the beauty that can be found at the molecular level.