Matt Gilligan's career has been all about giving back and enriching lives. His journey is an almost improbable one from the desert to the edge of the ocean (his doctoral degree earned at the University of Arizona before moving to Savannah, Georgia!). In 1979, he was hired by Savannah State College (a Historically Black College and University founded in 1890) where he has taught and mentored scores of students and faculty. There, he developed a ground-breaking baccalaureate program in Marine Biology through which both minority and majority students enrolled and graduated in nearly equal numbers.
In 2009, Dr. Gilligan and a colleague at Savannah State 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. From 2002-2012, the now-named Savannah State University graduated nine of the reported 19 African-American Master's degree recipients (Ocean Sciences) from all U.S. institutions of higher education, and 43 of the 48 reported African-American Bachelor's degree recipients (Ocean Sciences) from all U.S. institutions of higher education. These are truly remarkable outcomes in marine sciences!
In recent end-of-program surveys, 79 percent of the undergraduates changed or reinforced their plans to continue with graduate degree programs in the STEM fields. In a separate, follow-up survey of 59 previous participants (2009-2013), 40 participants responded. Twenty-one are still completing their undergraduate degrees (17 are science majors) and 31 respondents to the survey have attended, currently attend, or plan to attend graduate school.
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.