Public Servant of the Year

Michelle Giglio large updated

Michelle G. Giglio, PhD
School of Medicine
Associate professor, Department of Medicine
Academic and outreach coordinator, Institute for Genome Sciences  

Michelle G. Giglio, PhD, grew up with a sense of fairness and a love of science. For more than a decade, she’s combined those two traits to impact the lives of countless youths in the community surrounding the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and beyond.

Giglio, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine and the Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), is passionate about promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education to underserved students in Baltimore, and that’s a major reason she was chosen as UMB’s 2019 Public Servant of the Year. Also the academic and outreach coordinator at IGS, Giglio believes that if young students from underserved city neighborhoods are exposed to a variety of science projects and the expansive range of science careers, they can find avenues to pursue their interests and follow their dreams.

“I grew up with a strong sense that things should be fair, that everyone should be treated equally and everyone deserves the same opportunities in life,” says Giglio, who has been at IGS since 2007. “In reality, things are often not fair. I see our University right next to neighborhoods that are facing difficult challenges — the two exist in completely different worlds. I want to help build a bridge between those worlds.”

Giglio has been busy in her bridge-building activities. In 2014, she was invited to participate in the UMB President’s Outreach Council to help shape scientific programs for visiting students. When UMB launched the CURE Scholars Program in 2015, she was an early advocate and volunteered her time with the mentoring pipeline initiative, which prepares middle and high school students in West Baltimore for careers in research, STEM, and health care.

Giglio led a two-week, genomics-centered program for the CURE Program’s first summer camp in 2016 and has hosted weeklong programs in each of the past three summers. With creativity and energy, she develops full days of activities, including interactive games that get the rising seventh-graders excited about science. In 2018, she started a program called the Maryland Microbiome Project that brings STEM events to high school students throughout the city. “The students spend a full day at IGS, carrying out experiments. They engage in actual field work, collecting soil samples that are analyzed by IGS. They are doing real science,” she says.

“I have known Michelle for more than 18 years, and since our IGS launched in 2007 I have seen how her interest in empowering underserved students in downtown Baltimore has expanded,” says Claire M. Fraser, PhD, the director of IGS and the Dean’s Endowed Professor at UMSOM. “Michelle’s work with STEM educational outreach goes above and beyond anything that could be reasonably expected of our faculty. It is work that is done outside of her faculty responsibilities, and not part of any metrics for faculty promotion and tenure.

“She is truly passionate about the need to expose these children to scientific concepts and the beauty of science. She embodies UMB’s strategic mission goal to partner with Baltimore City schools, demonstrating meaningful and sustainable educational opportunities that can serve as a catalyst for community empowerment.”

At IGS, Giglio’s work involves analyzing sequence data to try to understand how changes in an organism’s DNA or environment lead to changes in any observable trait of the organism (such as disease state, behavior, etc.). Her group also is working to standardize the way data is captured across the research community so that finding, searching, and using the huge volumes of data being generated is made easier for all researchers.

Born and raised in Frederick, Md., she earned an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Maryland, College Park and her PhD in molecular biology and genetics from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As a teacher, she is essentially self-taught, a fact that makes her educational outreach efforts all the more impressive.

“Michelle has no formal training in how to teach young children, but she has not only developed many programs for students to spark their interest in science, her programs are well-received by the students and their teachers,” Fraser says. “Because she is passionate about helping youths enjoy and retain science, she has given her programs much thought and creative energy.”

Former executive director of the CURE Scholars Program Robin Saunders, EdD, MS, has seen the fruits of Giglio’s thoughts and energy firsthand. She praises Giglio’s CURE summer camp initiative for its engaging, interactive games and describes the professor as “an inspirational host.”

“Dr. Giglio is creative, energetic, and passionate about developing full days’ worth of scientific curriculum for our scholars,” Saunders says. “Keeping young people entertained and interested in indoor programs during the summer weather is not easy. But Dr. Giglio keeps them engaged. She never talks down to their age and has created ways to explain complex topics such as DNA sequencing and molecular biology to middle school children.

“People like Dr. Giglio are vital to the success of our program. She is committed to our program and to investing her time and creativity into seeing our CURE Scholars continue to succeed.”

Giglio says the content and curricula for her programs continually evolve as she strives to ensure that the students learn while having fun. “When I hear the kids ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ as they see DNA they’ve just isolated, or when their eyes light up as they share a poster about a favorite species they’ve been researching, I know I’ve succeeded.”

It’s all part of her bridge-building mission, and with her efforts, Giglio also is building hope.

“I hope to send a message to the kids I work with that they have options, that they have choices,” Giglio says. “I want them to know they can follow their dreams, and I want to show them there are resources out there to help them reach their goals.

Still, she is surprised to be the Public Servant Award recipient, pointing out there are many people at UMB doing great work in the community.

“Many of them do much more than I do, so I feel very honored to have received this award,” she says. “I’m happy to do the STEM outreach I do — it’s fun and very rewarding. It’s wonderful to see the commitment to outreach and community service across the UMB campus at every level.”

— Lou Cortina