Matt Gilligan's career has been all about giving back and enriching lives. His journey was an improbable one. After completing a doctoral degree at the University of Arizona studying fishes in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, he was hired by Savannah State College (a Historically Black College and University founded in 1890) in 1979 where he has taught and mentored scores of students and faculty for more than 30 years. There, he helped implement a ground-breaking baccalaureate program in Marine Biology through which both minority and majority students enrolled and graduated in nearly equal numbers.
In 1998, Dr. Gilligan and Dr. Sue Cook at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution developed a special Bridge to Research in Marine Sciences program for early undergraduates designed to retain minority students in the Ocean Sciences. The program has a particular focus on students with no prior research exposure, and is meant to address their conceptualization of scientific research, communication skills, and career aspirations. "The early strategy has two benefits," says Professor Gilligan, "... it could contribute to solidifying the choice of a STEM discipline, and make students more competitive for acceptance into traditional programs of research experiences for undergraduates which mainly accept upperclassmen or rising seniors."
By 2011—as an instructor, academic advisor, and mentor—he had touched the lives of 194 graduates in Marine Sciences (159 B.S. degree recipients and 35 M.S. degree recipients). Ninety-two of the graduates were African-American and 94 were white, non-Hispanic.
Most if not all of the $9 million in externally funded projects that he lead or co-lead at SSU included internships and fellowships for students. In some, student support was a majority of the direct cost total. He credits that support for the program’s remarkable growth and SSU’s current top national raking in bachelors and masters degrees earned by African Americans in the U.S. in the marine sciences from 2002-2017 (NCES/IPEDS data compiled by NOAA).
In 2002, Dr. Gilligan testified on ocean education and diversity before the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy in Charleston, South Carolina and, in 2006, he moderated a panel on the future ocean workforce and diversity at the Conference on Ocean Literacy in Washington, D.C. On October 1, 2011, after 31 years of service, Dr. Gilligan retired from Savannah State University and received an appointment as Professor Emeritus in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences.
Dr. France Cordova, Director of the National Science Foundation has said that PAESMEM recognizes the highest achievement for providing the most essential ingredients for professional development: confidence and support. Dr. Gilligan says that in his case intervention at the undergraduate level and financial support through paid undergraduate research internships and through paid graduate fellowships from grants and contracts were his greatest contributions.
Since he retired in late 2011 and as a professor emeritus, direct mentoring has given way to consulting and community activities. He serves on the Board of Wilderness Southeast Inc., a 40-year-old ecotourism non-profit that has shifted its focus to providing STEM education supplement programs for middle schools that include classroom, laboratory and field trips to explore and learn about water/habitat quality and its relation to human health and well-being. The ‘Fish-Gotta-Swim’ program is currently funded entirely by grants and awards. He collects hidden driftwood and drift lumber from saltmarshes locally and up-cycle it into home furnishings that are sold exclusively at 24e Design Co. in Savannah. A portion of all sales goes to the ‘Fish-Gotta-Swim’ program.
Not long ago he served as a panelist at a Community Leaders Forum in Savannah focusing upon Climate Change, Sea Level Rise and Resilience Planning in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. Video production segments on each of the forums and a summary documentary was produced by the sponsors and SCETV and can be found on the web under ‘Sea Change’. An SSU alum, Mr. Albert George, Director of Conservation at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, was a driving force in that effort.
He has been invited to serve on a career panel at the Oceans 18 meeting of the Ocean Engineering Society and Marine Technology Society in Charleston, SC in October 2018 and looks forward to attending meetings of the Southern and National Associations of Marine Laboratories and Ocean Leadership, Inc. as well in 2019. Over the years he has been thanked by SAML and NAML members for being a good peer mentor regarding strategies and best practices to increase social diversity in research internship programs at their laboratories. Dr. Sue Ebanks is SSU’s current institutional representative and SAML Secretary. She earned both B.S. and M.S. degrees in Marine Sciences at SSU. He very much looks forward to using award’s credentials and support to tell the story and advocate for STEM education and mentorship whenever the opportunity arises.
PAESMEM BIO revised July 18, 2018