MUSC News Center
Globe-trotting scientist lived remarkable life
Dawn Brazell | MUSC News Center | August 12, 2015
|Dr. Louis Guillette doing research in South Africa. His local and global research with alligators and crocodiles shed light on how environmental contaminants are affecting human health. See his photo gallery.|
“Being a scientist is the four best jobs on Earth.
Louis J. Guillette in a recent article for MUSC's Center for Global Health
Still reeling from the news of the passing of Louis “Lou” J. Guillette, Ph.D. Aug. 6, colleagues mourned the loss of an internationally-renowned scientist described as "larger than life" and "a force of nature."
David Cole, M.D., president of the Medical University of South Carolina, called Guillette a rare individual and talented scientist. "It’s a testament to his character how well loved he was by his students," Cole said. "As an investigator, he was highly accomplished and had prestigious global connections working at the frontiers of multiple disciplines of science, including biomedicine and the environment. His model of team science was ahead of its time and helped set MUSC in a direction in which we want to continue."
Guillette, an endowed chair in marine genomics and director of the Marine Biomedicine & Environmental Sciences Center at MUSC, was an expert in comparative reproductive biology and developmental endocrinology. His research explored how to prevent and treat health problems caused by environmental factors. Conducting research with MUSC’s departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Pediatrics, he focused on how various environmental factors might lead to birth defects or other reproductive abnormalities in wildlife and humans.
Guillette’s work often took him out in the field, whether doing research on crocodiles in South Africa or alligators in local refuges. In his wildlife biology research over the past 20 years, Guillette found links between environmental contaminants and infertility and reproductive issues in alligator populations from Florida to South Carolina.
Guillette held dual appointments, which allowed him to work closely with MUSC physicians and researchers as well as scientists at the Hollings Marine Laboratory (HML). The HML is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-administered facility, with activities governed by the five partner organizations that include MUSC, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the College of Charleston.
MUSC researcher Demetri Spyropoulos, Ph.D., said he and Guillette had a webinar presentation last Wednesday, but his friend and colleague was not feeling well from a fever related to what he called his “3-year-old” immune system, which was weakened by the effects of chemotherapy. Guillette told him not to worry, and Spyropoulos didn’t since his friend always bounced back to 10 times the energy level of anyone around him.
“He assured me that I knew my stuff and he had all the confidence in me going it alone. He said, ‘Demetri, remember the power of positive thinking!’ I told him the difference was that the web viewers would be jumping up and down applauding in front of their computer screens if he did it. I said, ‘Rest up, and I’ll let you know how it went.’”
Unfortunately, Spyropoulos didn’t get that chance. Guillette, 62, passed away Thursday, Aug. 6. In his passing, though, he left a wake of colleagues he had touched and many of whom he had mentored, a cause near and dear to his heart. (Read their tributes here.)
Roger Newman, M.D., professor and Maas Chair for Reproductive Sciences in MUSC’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, was instrumental in recruiting Guillette from the University of Florida, where he had made an international name for himself in reproductive biology using the alligator model as a sentinel species. Despite his distinction and standing in that academic community, Guillette embraced the opportunity at a late stage in his career to make a change and collaborate with researchers in the medical field, he said.
“He embraced it so enthusiastically that it was invigorating,” Newman said of the groundbreaking move. “He was larger than life. What impressed me the most was his contagious enthusiasm and vigorous belief in the importance of environmental exposure on human health.”
Guillette had top-tier, international connections and brought a new level of collaborative enterprise to MUSC. He opened doors to intramural and extramural research collaborations that were previously closed and his leadership contributed to significant research opportunities, including his involvement with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill studies.
“He was an extremely prestigious person to have in our department. In just a few years after coming here, he was the recipient of the Heinz Award for his career achievement in environmental research, which is equivalent to the environmental Nobel Prize and one of the top awards a scientist can receive,” Newman said.
Guillette was a talented teacher and mentor, Newman said. He was always looking for ways to train, protect and support his students. “He had a Pied Piper relationship with students. Lou was a tremendous teacher. They loved him and were inspired by him.”
One legacy Guillette leaves is that he sparked interest among animal-based researchers who took note of his interdisciplinary collaborations with clinical researchers and physicians. Newman said he blazed a trail in crossing traditional boundaries of how science can be performed. Though Guillette’s loss is a setback, his legacy will continue not only in the students he influenced, but also in how he worked at the frontiers of multiple scientific disciplines building bridges across those gaps.
Guillette recently discussed with Newman his dream of establishing a graduate-level marine biomedicine environmental program among MUSC, the Hollings Marine Laboratory and the College of Charleston, an idea Newman describes as “brilliant.” The program would be far-reaching, exploring how environmental contaminants may be impacting not only reproductive disorders but also a wide range of chronic diseases including obesity, cancer, diabetes, autism and immunological diseases.
Some people fear his loss will disrupt those plans. “My hope is that his passing might serve as a catalyst to make that dream become a reality. What he has done will not be lost or forgotten,” Newman said.
In the future, Newman predicts, Guillette and his colleagues will be recognized for one very important paradigm shift they accomplished. This shift already is starting to affect federal and environmental regulatory agencies, where scientists are beginning to acknowledge that the danger of certain chemicals is not just related to the exposure dosage, but also the timing of exposure, particularly if it occurs during critical windows of fetal development.
“When you lose someone of his dominating personality, it leaves a void,” Newman said.
After all, there aren’t many researchers as comfortable talking with physicians and basic scientists as they are “wrangling alligators” in the field.
An incredible wildlife and nature photographer, Guillette used that talent in slide shows he tirelessly shared with community groups to raise awareness of the interactions between the environment and human health. He particularly liked a photo he shot at night, showing hundreds of glowing alligator eyes. No one left one of his lectures without being changed, better understanding the interaction between human health and the environment, Newman said.
“More and more, I wake up feeling like I’m getting old. But when you were around Lou, you didn’t feel old. There were so many ideas, so much enthusiasm, all of a sudden there was just so much to do, and you were enveloped by his zest and zeal,” Newman said.
That’s the experience Kathleen Ellis, director of operations for MUSC’s Center for Global Health, had as well. She described Guillette as the consummate storyteller.
“Listening to Lou could transport you on a journey from his work in the remote village of Botswana where he lived with his wife, Buzzy, an anthropologist, to his environmental research on the crocodiles and fish wildlife of Kruger Park, South Africa, to his early roots in global health which went all the way back to his Ph.D. days when he was in Mexico trying to understand high altitude pregnancy and the evolution of the placenta,” she said.
“It was impossible to walk away from Lou without feeling a little in awe, a little more curious, inspired by his science to make the world a better, healthier place. How could you not?”
Ellis said Guillette’s global health research took him to every corner of the world - every continent except Antarctica. He worked to mentor and support students and scientists in developing countries who didn’t have the technology and resources some other researchers have.
“He believed that we are all part of a global environment and that while individuals can make a difference, you can’t build a community with one person. ‘The minute that person is gone, the community collapses’ - which is why he worked tirelessly to provide mentorship and build networks around the world for his students and colleagues,” Ellis said.
In a conversation she had with him just a few weeks ago, he told her: “My legacy to science is not just the work I did - that’s just bricks and walls. Your true legacy is the people you leave behind.”
Ellis said Guillette had an impact on almost everyone he met. “Lou’s legacy will forever be imprinted in the hearts and minds of all those lives he touched - students, colleagues, friends and family.”
Spyropoulos said his friend, who always was traveling to some exotic place or other, was supposed to go to Africa this week for more field work. “He was such a force of nature, his passing just wasn’t a possibility. He was always on the move, always motivating, pushing quality science and public awareness,” he said.
Known for a witty sense of humor and relentless optimism, Guillette’s words of encouragement will always resonate with Spyropoulos. “Our Gulf grant meetings were always electrifying — we fed off of each other's excitement and energy, eagerly refining our thoughts and course of action. The scientific endeavor was paramount. What is the big question? How do we break this up into testable hypotheses? What are the priorities?” Spyropoulos said. “Ideas and words were his domain. He would say ‘a good idea instilled into the minds of others will never die.’
“But I find myself at a loss for words now — you can’t hug or shake hands with or get a hearty pat on the back from a word. It is the man who will be missed.”
Guillette is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Arnold Guillette, two sons and two daughters.