Gary B. Gillis

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Picture a biologist staring in fascination as an animal (any animal!) moves past. If the biologist is Gary Gillis, he instantly starts posing questions about the “hows” and “whys” of the movement: the placement of the feet (if there are feet), the head, the tail; their elevation; what’s doing what, and how fast. The biomechanics of animal movement are the focus of his research, and its breadth is remarkable. His research extends from functional morphology and physiology to engineering, all considered in light of the adaptive significance of these movements to the life of the animal involved.  Because Gary asks important, fundamental, and innovative questions on animal locomotion, and uses a battery of very current techniques/methodologies/instrumentations to simultaneously assess the many factors affecting power production throughout  a movement cycle—including patterns of neurological activation (through electromyography), length changes in a contracting muscle (through sonomicrometry), force production (through use of force plates), and joint angles and other kinesiological variables (through high speed video recording),  his comprehensive findings have brought very significant new insights to our understanding of how muscles really work.

Gary arrived at MHC in the fall of 2002, already an established and highly regarded researcher in the field of comparative biomechanics. With a very impressive list of research publications on record, generated from his years of work with two giants in his field—a Ph.D. with George Lauder at UC Irvine and a post-doc with Andrew Biewener at Harvard, Gary succeeded in obtaining NSF funding on his very first try! The funding allowed Gary to set up and pursue a very ambitious and comprehensive program of biomechanics research.  Working with undergraduates, he has continued to publish interesting results in the top tier journals in his field. This productivity has recently resulted in a second NSF grant.

In choosing to come to Mount Holyoke, Gary sought a faculty position that offers balanced opportunity to do teaching and research.  He loves to teach and has shown that he is a phenomenal classroom teacher. He arrived knowing that teaching would slow his research productivity. And his work has attracted a large number of independent students whom he has mentored judiciously and with dedication. We admire (and applaud) Gary’s willingness to invest so heavily in teaching and mentoring while still maintaining a cutting-edge research program. His work with students—some on student-designed projects—has yielded very significant findings and taken Gary’s own research towards new directions.  Thus, Gary has a student to thank for the latest splash in the news (and on YouTube videos) about the jumping behavior of tailless lizards. 

Gary actively serves the larger external biomechanical community. He is the current Secretary of the Division of Vertebrate Morphology for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. He has been making steady contributions through his writing—the quality of which is outstanding. That writing involves not only his own research publications, his prolific and capable review of grants, manuscripts, and books, but also his quarterly contribution to the Journal of Experimental Biology—the top tier journal in his field—of a feature called “Outside JEB.” The goal is to bring new and interesting scientific findings in his field to the larger scientific and educated community. He has written eighteen such articles, which have been widely cited as “fascinating gems”. One of his tenure reviewers commented that he always reads these articles of Gary’s first “both to see what he [Gary] thinks is interesting research and for the sheer joy of the prose.”

In sum, Gary is a superbly talented and effective researcher whose thoughtful, dedicated, and exemplary mentoring of undergraduate students has given Mount Holyoke an outsized impact in his field. Through his thoughtful work, Gary has established a national/international reputation for excellence in his field.  Gary Gillis, for all of these accomplishments, we honor you with a 2011 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.