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Irma Gigli, MD, talks about the role of TAMEST
Mentoring the ,,By Karen O. Krakower
"There is nothing glamorous, I assure you, to my title of ‘secretary' of TAMEST," Irma Gigli, M.D., said with a smile, waving off any praise in customary self-deprecation, "but encouraging the growth of young scientists through this organization? Now, there's something I do brag about."
Deputy director of The University of Texas Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), Gigli sits on the board of an elite but growing group of Texans who all share a passion for mentoring some of the next and best scientific minds.
TAMEST stands for The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas and boasts a membership composed entirely of Texans elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. Founded five years ago by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Nobel laureates Michael Brown, M.D., and the late Richard Smalley, Ph.D., TAMEST has inducted 279 members, established awards for outstanding up-and-coming scientists, is launching new initiatives to improve Texas K-12 math and science education and outcomes and, "above all, fosters the goal of mentoring Texas' scientific future, the most important role the Academy can play," Gigli said.
A main focus of TAMEST is to position the state as a national scientific and technological force. As Sen. Hutchison said in a letter to TAMEST members this year, "Our goal is to elevate Texas' profile as a science state-to attract leading researchers, raise the level of federal research and development dollars in Texas, and foster the next generation of scientists for the 21st Century."
For Gigli, that translates into mentoring. "I had a tremendous opportunity to develop a career when I came from Argentina to this country-beyond what I could imagine. I would like to see young people receiving the same sort of encouragement in their careers-this is what I find most attractive about TAMEST."
Gigli also was one of the early physician scientists to bring the science of immunology to the field of dermatology.
Ironically, in science, the word "mentoring" has become overused and diluted right at a time when its value is crucial. "Supporting research is much more demanding and competitive now; in years past, mentoring took care of the budding scientist," Gigli said. Historically, the mentor/apprentice relationship was sacrosanct, indivisible and lifelong. Budding scientists in medicine, research, engineering studied at the sides-or the benches-of their mentors and the passing along of knowledge, ultimately wisdom, ensured the continuum of the discipline and the career of the younger professional. In today's hypermobile society, mentor and protégé may be worlds apart, literally.
Poster sessions have proliferated, often in place of plenary talks and general sessions at scientific meetings, cutting down on actual face-to-face interaction. Communication, though convenient by Internet, does not foster the same engagement that impassions the scientific community when there is interpersonal exchange. "The Internet cannot replace the gathering of minds in one place to share ideas and form relationships that will stretch a lifetime. TAMEST is doing its part to bring up young scientists and to get to know their work," Gigli said.
In addition to their annual conferences which bring together research in fields from life sciences, aerospace to energy, TAMEST hosts mid-year meetings to provide Texas students and post-doctoral fellows the opportunity to showcase their work. "Our members are encouraged to bring ‘protégés' that have clearly demonstrated their potential to become academy members," Gigli explained.
"They have the chance to interact with Nobel laureates, members of the various Academies and other Texas University leaders who they might otherwise never get to meet."
In the past, Gigli, along with other members of TAMEST from the health science center, have invited fellows and students from around campus who, "based on their work and our interactions with them, we know are the ones who can ‘get there.'"
"There" is to one of the national academies from which TAMEST draws its members and how Texas etches its image upon the national scientific (and technological) community. "We want to increase our representation by increasing the number of those we nominate."
Shrinking resources and increasing competition for limited research dollars led philanthropists Edith and Peter O'Donnell from Dallas to establish awards through TAMEST to recognize outstanding scientific achievements of the state's rising researchers in the five categories of medicine, science, engineering, and technology innovation.
"The breadth of the Edith and Peter O'Donnell Awards underscores the importance of intermingling science with industry and technology, the essential nature of collaboration, if we are to make a measureable impact on society," Gigli said. "And, if we can assist the next generation in pushing their research forward, then we are taking mentorship to the next level."
As with the scientific discoveries they pursue, for the mentors, reward sometimes come years down the road, in the most serendipitous ways. A few weeks ago, Gigli received an email bearing a name she didn't recognize.
The woman wrote that during a recent grant review session, she came across Gigli's name, in whose Harvard immunology lab she had worked for a summer many years ago. "I had made some suggestions to her at the time, the email said, and the suggestions ended up being correct, she writes. ‘Because of you, I have made a career in science.'
"That was 37 years ago. Thirty-seven years ago... and she would go to the trouble to send me this message."
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