Meet Kevin Gillis

October 22, 2021

Kevin Gillis graphic

While they apply different skillsets, chemical, biomedical and bioengineering use complementary approaches to solve problems. That’s why Mizzou Engineering combined the departments four years ago, and why it’s critical these areas work together to make advances in energy, health and the environment. Meet Kevin Gillis, a champion of collaborating with others to improve lives.

Gillis is chair and professor in the Department of Biomedical, Biological and Chemical Engineering. He also recently served as director of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at Mizzou. He’s a core faculty member at the Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center, and has a joint appointment in the Department of Medical Pharmacology and Physiology in the School of Medicine. And he’s a champion of STEM education long before students step foot on a college campus.

If there’s a through-line to Gillis’s 25-year career at Mizzou, it’s service to others, be it investigating cells to benefit other researchers, overseeing one of the largest departments in the College of Engineering or teaching and inspiring future engineers.

The latter is what has kept him motivated throughout the course of his career.

“Working with young people — being inspired by them and trying to inspire them — is what being at a university is all about,” Gillis said.

Creating a pipeline

Before would-be engineers can reap the benefits of a highly rewarding career, they have to understand the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

That’s why of all of Gillis’ impressive titles, he believes his role as a mentor of Army Ants — Columbia’s FIRST® Robotics Competition team — is key. He began mentoring the local high school group when it started a decade ago with the goal of getting younger students excited about STEM.

“We all want to bring the next generation along in STEM careers, and we need to inspire them early,” Gillis said. “We have to motivate younger students from diverse backgrounds because we need more engineers, and we need more women and people of color in engineering to bring different perspectives to the field and solve global challenges. We can’t wait until they are in college; we have to establish a pipeline from pre-kindergarten to profession.”

Gillis and other mentors from MU and industry provide the Army Ants with logistical assistance, as well as serve as role models.

Gillis knows first-hand the power of mentorship. While he had a natural interest in science and technology from an early age, others over the years have helped shape his career.

Gillis earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics from a dual program offered between Washington University and Saint Louis University. He took a biomedical engineering class at Washington University with an inspirational professor who recommended him for a job at a medical research laboratory at Washington University medical center. There Gillis applied both science and engineering skills to conduct experiments using patch clamp electrophysiology.

“It’s a technique that was new at the time measuring the electrical activity of cells as they transmit information,” he said. “The cells I worked with were insulin-secreting cells from the pancreas that undergo electrical signaling in a way similar to neurons. I also worked on pioneering a technique to take electrical measurements from single cells that can detect release of insulin. As a student, I figured out how to bring that technique to the lab.”

Gillis’ work earned him a coveted post-doctoral fellowship spot in Germany, working in the lab of Erwin Neher, who co-won the 1991 Nobel Prize in medicine for developing the patch clamp technique.

From Germany to Mizzou

Gillis worked in Neher’s lab for several years before Mizzou recruited him to join the Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center. He was part of a cohort of scientists hired over a two- to three-year period as a research cluster.

“It was a dynamic group coming together — a nice mix of biomedical/biophysics scientists who wanted to work with engineers who could bring insight into the problem,” Gillis said. “It was very exciting.”

At Mizzou, Gillis tackles basic science questions and develops technology to help other scientists address those questions.

“On a very basic level, I study how cells release signaling molecules, neurotransmitters and hormones,” he said. “That’s the theme of my lab; how is this secretion process regulated.”

Researchers can use that foundational understanding to develop prevention and treatment strategies.

“While my research is not always directly seeking a cure for a disease, it certainly touches on therapeutic interventions that could address health issues,” he said. “For example, what we learned about insulin secretion some years ago has been essential to develop new drugs to treat diabetes. The goal is to improve human health.”

Fostering collaboration

Improving human health is a goal Gillis keeps in mind as chair of BBCE. He’s striving to find new ways to take advantage of the convergence of bioengineering, biomedical engineering and chemical engineering — a vision that aligns with the mission of NextGen Precision Health, a UM System initiative that aims to bring researchers together to find innovation solutions to health issues by focusing on individualized care.

NextGen is just one example of how the fields are intersecting. These disciplines are working closely together in labs across the country.

“There are jobs for chemical engineers in the life sciences, and companies that normally hire chemical engineers need biomedical and biological engineers, as well,” Gillis said. “I’m working to achieve greater synergy.”

That synergy will be especially important as the department grows, he said. This year, BBCE is bringing in new joint faculty hires with the Department of Radiology to foster greater collaboration between medical imaging and engineering technologies. These investigators will be housed in the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building.

BBCE faculty have joint appointments with additional departments in the School of Medicine, including two researchers who are now part of NextGen Precision Health. Associate Professor Diana Gil Pagés has joint appointments in molecular microbiology and immunology, surgery and BBCE, and Associate Professor Adam Schrum has joint appointments in molecular microbiology and immunology, surgery, BBCE and dermatology. Together, they are developing new approaches to immunotherapy, using specific cells known as T cells to fight cancer.

BBCE faculty are working on solving problems outside of the medical realm, too.  In recent months, BBCE Assistant Professor Matthias Young has conducted research around designing new ways to understand materials and developed a more sustainable desalinization method. And Kiruba Krishnaswamy, who has joint appointments in BBCE and the College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources, is working on optimizing food processing techniques to develop healthier, tastier soy products.

“BBCE faculty are leaders in areas of energy conversion and storage, thin films and nanocoatings, water studies and sustainability and bioprocess and food process engineering, among other topics,” Gillis said.

BBCE successes

BBCE faculty have recently become involved in the development of a new online certificate for clinical engineering. Heather Hunt, associate professor in BBCE and e-Learning Strategic Initiatives Fellow, is co-leading a $2.6 million grant from the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development along with Siemens Healthineers. The program, which will be one of the first of its kind in the U.S., will train students to work on state-of-the-art medical imaging equipment.

“We’re very excited about what Dr. Hunt is doing to lead the development of the new certificate in clinical engineering,” Gillis said. “It will help train engineers to go straight into jobs within the medical device industry.”

Last semester, Hunt won a 2021 Kemper Fellowship, and Assistant Professor Zheng Yan, who has a joint appointment in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, received the 2021 UM System Presidential Faculty Award for Career Excellence. And Young received the 2020 Paul H. Holloway Young Investigator Award from the American Vacuum Society Thin Film Division.

Other successes are happening inside the classroom, as well, as faculty adopt the latest technologies to prepare students for the workplace of today.

“My recognition of the importance of high-quality teaching has grown throughout the years,” said Gillis, who is certified in online education. “I think we’ve lived through a period which has seen a big transition in the way we teach in higher education. I’m very excited about integrating teaching technologies. We can deliver a higher-quality product now than we were able to do even 10 years ago, and it came along just in time for the pandemic — which definitely put the foot on the gas pedal in terms of helping instructors realize how they can deliver quality content online.”

Gillis gives students opportunities to apply classroom lessons to the real-world. When COVID-19 was becoming a reality in Columbia in March 2020, he was instrumental in forming a task force of engineers and health professionals to help address specific needs in the community and beyond. Through the task force, student groups, along with faculty and staff, came together to develop highly specialized face shields used in the COVID intensive-care unit, devices to rotate patients in their beds and even 3D printed COVID test swabs.

“Looking back now, one of the major accomplishments was a specific type of replacement face shield used in COVID ICUs both here and in Illinois,” he said. “In addition, handy clips for protective equipment we developed continue to be used in ICUs every day.”

From mentoring young students to training the next generation of biomedical, biological and chemical engineers to supporting faculty and helping the community — all while making innovative discoveries along the way — Gillis exemplifies scholarship and leadership at Mizzou.

“It’s all about educating the next generation,” he said, “as well as academic freedom. It’s exciting to pursue areas of intellectual curiosity. And becoming department chair has been a significant transition. It’s very exciting to be able to serve in this capacity.”