My guide through the academic jungle

Gregg Gonsalves ’11, who came to Yale as a Eli Whitney Student after a 20-year career as an HIV/AIDS activist/advocate, writes about Stephen Stearns, the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Stephen Stearns is one of the most wonderful teachers and mentors I’ve ever had. I am not saying this as a usual 21-year-old graduating senior, but as a 47-year-old undergraduate who came back to school after two decades and a long career in biomedical research and global health policy.

I took Steve’s introductory evolution and ecology course two years ago. Steve’s enthusiasm for the material, his engagement in class, his appearances in weekly section meetings, his insistence that students be able to write about what they were learning, not just regurgitate facts, made for an exciting semester. When I went to Steve after class one day to discuss my interest in bringing the insights of evolutionary biology to bear on HIV/AIDS, he was enthusiastic, took the time to point me in the right direction and urged me to talk to others about my ideas.

I ended up spending an entire year with Steve, three other faculty and three other students in the capstone seminar on evolutionary medicine in 2010. The course changed my life. It allowed me to further explore my interests in host-pathogen interactions in an evolutionary context, and to hone my skills at reading and discussing scientific papers — all while being grilled by Steve, who treated the class like a boot-camp for aspiring scientists, pushing us to think clearly and analytically, and to write in the same way.

Last summer, I went to Steve to confess that I was hooked: He had set a fire in my head about evolution and infectious disease, and I wanted to keep learning more, pursue graduate studies and do research. Steve could have said, “Well, at your age, perhaps you should go back to public policy and consider your time at Yale a sabbatical of sorts, rather than embark on a course for a Ph.D. and a new career in science.” He was honest; he told me the hurdles I would face and then helped me think through how to look for Ph.D. programs. He wrote what must have been wonderful recommendations, because I have been given offers from the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Oxford University in the United Kingdom to take up a research degree in AIDS research.

Life can be a series of adventures and you need guides along the way as you make your way through new terrain. One couldn’t ask for a better guide through the academic jungle than Steve Stearns. I had doubts and trepidations about coming back to get my degree after all these years. Steve made the journey worthwhile and my time at Yale something I will always treasure.

Stephen Stearns was recently honored with a DeVane Award for his outstanding teaching. See more on the award here. His class on “Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior” is featured as part of Open Yale Courses; see here.