Reflection from an Alumnus: An Open Letter of Appreciation to Trinity and Its Faculty

Greg Gavelis ’08 Says, ‘Trinity College Taught Me the Kind of Scientist I Want to Be’

​Hartford, Connecticut, June 16, 2016 –

Greg Gavelis ’08 Trinity College
Greg Gavelis ’08 ​
In spring of 2004, shortly after my acceptance to Trinity College, I got an unassuming letter inviting me to the first-year Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP). I couldn’t know it at the time, but this letter initiated a cascade of events that would plunge me up to my eyeballs in science. Unlike the thousands of biology undergraduates at the university where I just completed my doctorate, at Trinity College I had the opportunity to do research as a freshman, camp at an experimental farm, and present my findings with [Thomas S. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Biology] Dan Blackburn at the National History Museum in Paris. In hindsight, the invitation to that first-year program was a lot like getting a first owl from Hogwarts.

But it’s impossible to see the bigger picture while it’s still being written. Truth be told, I arrived at Trinity full of doubt. The weekend before classes, I’d gone for an extramural camping trip with a Trinity sports team and immediately learned that some college scenes just weren’t for me. (I discovered the delayed effects of facial poison ivy during orientation weekend. And while camping, I learned why not to put place your sleeping bag downhill from the designated pee tree – a morning too late). By contrast, my twin had joined the cross-country team at Wesleyan and was loving it. I was green with envy and red with poison ivy, but soon, our college experiences would take a turn.

In the ISP, Alison Draper [director of the Interdisciplinary Science Center and a lecturer in interdisciplinary science] immediately engaged us in science. Within the first few weeks of class, we went out into Hartford and measured lead levels at an abandoned city lot. She helped us present our findings before a Hartford urban planning board (the lead levels were negligible, and the lot is now, happily, a community garden). Not long after, at a poster presentation, Professor Blackburn invited me to join his lab. I was also taught electron microscopy personally by Dr. Ann Lehman, who oversaw the electron microscopy facility. The strangest part was, I wasn’t a straight-A student; I was just an awkward freshman excited about biology.

This kind of thing isn’t possible in most universities. With sprawling science facilities, university labs are larger but far less personal. Research in each unit is done by dozens of grad students and postdocs, while the professor is occupied primarily with the tasks of administration and writing grants (teaching falls mostly on lecturers). In this, the standard model, students and professors rarely interact. By contrast, labs at Trinity consist of one professor and just a couple students, and we spoke with our professors every day. My faculty adviser, Scott Smedley [associate professor of biology], took us on field trips to Church Farm, and [Charles A. Dana Professor of Biology] Craig Schneider trekked with students to Nepal (he still does). Both professors, on several occasions, invited classes for lunch or dinner at their homes. Once, on a drive home from a dinner seminar, a friend confessed that if she ever got in a jam, she wouldn’t know who to call first – her parents or Doc Schneider. I didn’t realize how rare these experiences are until I went for my master’s and Ph.D. at large universities. At Trinity, these faculty encounters weren’t unusual, they were just life.

Unlike my brother, I never got into the college party scene, but Trinity presented opportunities whose benefits were more enduring. Among the handful of friends that I “nerded out” with, one is now a doctor, two are professors (in chemistry and physics), and I’d like to think that in biology, I’m on my way. So now, as I pack up for a research position in the largest university in the U.S., I hope to bring Trinity’s small-school lessons with me. There are many steps to being a professor, and I don’t know when I’ll get there, but thanks to Trinity, I know exactly the kind of professor I want to be.

Written by Greg Gavelis ’08

Greg Gavelis, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral researcher in cell biology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. As of November 2016, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University. He recently had a paper published in the journal Nature.