MUSC scientist finds adventure in mentoring, scientific discovery

From tracking crocodiles near barrier reefs in Belize to evading Hippos in Africa, Louis Guillette, PhD, has had exciting, adrenaline filled experiences most only dream of. However, nothing excites Guillette more than sharing his discoveries and leading the next generation of researchers to defining their cause.

Across the world, on every continent save for Antarctica, Guillette has led teams in numerous research capacity building projects. “As a scientist, I’ve worked on sub-Antarctic islands, but never the mainland,” Guillette said.

Guillette, Director of the Marine Biomedicine & Environmental Sciences Center and SmartState Endowed Chair at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), recently received a 2015 MUSC Center for Global Health Pilot grant to determine the relationship between disease occurrence and exposure to toxicants in fish at different trophic levels at Kruger National Park in South Africa. His team of scientists will also determine the plasma lipid profiles of fish with varying states of pansteatitis and compare lipid profiles in fish species at different trophic levels to determine similarities in fish.

While Guillette has been working in South Africa for ten years, he has worked globally since the beginning of his career.  As a graduate student he found global work of great import, especially reproductive health. His early studies focused on health issues such as high-altitude pregnancy in the trans-volcanic mountains of Mexico and the evolution of the placenta. But his interests were nurtured even earlier as a child where Guillette first learned of the adventure component to any scientific discovery.

“I would watch Jacques Cousteau and realized that the worlds I could work in as a biologist are not fiction, but are able to be ventured with the right amount of passion and training,” said Guillette.

Guillette conveyed the message of early learning and mentorship when he was asked to do a special for Nickelodeon a few years ago. He was directed to define the job of a scientist. His answer was simple, significant and profound.

“Being a scientist is the four best jobs on Earth,” Guillette began. “You are a detective, an adventurer, an artist and a storyteller.”

Guillette feels if you cannot tell people–whether it be students, colleagues or the community—what you found and if you are unable to express your passion for your scientific discoveries, then it would be less convincing or meaningful to those who choose to follow your work.

Legacy in most industries are fleetingly sought after. It takes a certain degree of selflessness to achieve a worthwhile legacy, according to Guillette. “You reach a point in your career where your work is less a reflection of what you did and more who you impacted,” Guillette explained. “Your true legacy to science is the people you leave behind. I realized early on that it is not about money or numbers of publications, but making a difference in people’s lives.”

Does everything have to be an adventure?

Guillette answered the question mirthfully, “Yeah, it does have to be an adventure! I get to do what I love to do.” This has become the byword for him and his crews. Taking this tact and passion with everything allows Guillette to complete inordinate amounts of work in relatively small amounts of time. He never tires. After a 16 to 20 hour day, he is left to reflect on what transpired and anxiously looks forward to the research items left to complete.

His mentorship also plays a role. Students are eager to work with him and colleagues around the world enjoy collaborating with him.

“Dr. Guillette is a wonderful mentor for students, postdoctoral scholars, and young faculty,” Theresa Cantu, a doctoral student in Guillette’s marine biomedicine program and a recent recipient of the MUSC Center for Global Health trainee travel grant, said. “Ever the curious scientist, his passion for research is infectious and an inspiration to young scientists.”

Guillette recently contributed to an indicting report of a dispersant used to clean up the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, diotyl sodium sulfosuccinate—DOSS, for short—that likely contributes to obesity in humans and wildlife. The team also found that DOSS, an obesogen, is found in laxatives and some commonly consumed beverages like homogenized milk and soft drinks. Guillette’s excitement of the discoveries made through work on this project was palpable. It was a new discovery of an existing chemical used to salvage an environment plagued by catastrophe—or an adventure to find an unknown truth.

“This is an old chemical—it has been around since 1958 and can, unfortunately, be found in a number of consumables we use daily,” explained Guillette. “We need more baseline data from this spill in the Gulf as we modify our own coasts around the country.”

Watchman on the wall

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) published an article in 2007 featuring Guillette—he was also awarded a professorship at HHMI in 2006. He and his team studied alligators that were experiencing hormonal abnormalities due to exposure to contaminants in Lake Apopka near Orlando, FL. The study’s importance illustrates the roles that wildlife, especially vertebrates, play in the impact of health across species.

Guillette contends that wildlife are the watchman on the wall that alerts us to impending zoonotic disease or similar gene sequences among alligators that when threatened by contamination can be indicative of hormonal interruptions in humans. That is how he explains his research—“it would be naïve to dismiss the implications considering that reproductive hormones in both species are very similar.”

Guillette himself is a watchman. He provides students and colleagues with mentorship, connecting them with their own adventures through what often are uncharted, but navigable waters. To tell the story is to impart wisdom learned but not guarded. Guillette does this through his scholarly publications, media appearances and lecturing in the classroom.  Finally, he sees opportunities to not only learn but to contribute to his profession, whether it is through mentorship or groundbreaking research. Cantu feels she is a better student of science because she adopted Guillette’s scientific philosophy.

“I have learned a great deal throughout my graduate career from Dr. Guillette, not only does he mentor students on bench work - he also teaches us how to navigate the political arena in academics and beyond by utilizing effective communication skills,” remarked Cantu. “He is a true leader - he leads by example and promotes collaboration between individuals to meet a common goal.”