Doors Pushed Open

Alumni5 MIN. READ

For scientist Devin Gibbs, doors to opportunity opened

Devin Gibbs ’14
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
June 12, 2019

As he waited to hear from Colby admissions Devin Gibbs ’14 received an invitation. The letter offered to pay for all his expenses to bring him to campus so he could get a feel for the school. What it didn’t say was he had, in essence, been admitted.

Gibbs, who lived in Waterville just minutes from the campus, was skeptical. “I had never gotten anything for free before and, to be honest, things [in my life] were harder than that,” he said.

Almost a month later, his guidance counselor not only received his acceptance letter, but also got a call from Colby, asking why Gibbs didn’t attend the event, or even respond. Anxiously, the counselor called Gibbs to figure out what was happening. “It was actually through my guidance counselor freaking out that I understood, ‘Oh wow, Colby’s actually a big deal,’” said Gibbs, who learned he was admitted to Colby with a generous financial aid package. “I didn’t know it was one of the top liberal arts school in the nation.”

The Devin Gibbs then—who knew nothing about college—transformed at Colby into a remarkable scientist, now pursuing a Ph.D. at UCLA. On top of that, he’s doing research in two different labs with two scientists, an unusual arrangement that requires special skills.

That opportunity, said Andrea Tilden, the J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology at Colby and Gibbs’s mentor, “really speaks to his ability to be collaborative as well as being a super-talented student and a really smart scientist.” Tilden has mentored many successful science students in her career. Gibbs, she said, was “exceptional.”

Exceptional as he would prove to be at Colby, in high school Gibbs had reasons to be lost during the college application process. He and his younger brother were raised by their mother, who worked long hours as a waitress to make ends meet. And when she couldn’t, it meant eviction notices and bouncing from apartment to apartment.

Life outside home wasn’t any easier. Growing up in Waterville, Gibbs, who is Black, said he there was a lot of ignorance, and as a child dealt with bias and prejudice in the community and in school. “I definitely dealt with a lot of racism,” he said.

By fourth grade, the family moved into public housing. In a stable home, and with his mother’s support, Gibbs finally began pursuing his own interests and his true abilities surfaced. Eventually, he became captain of the Waterville High School football team and indoor and outdoor track teams, lead saxophone player in the high school band, and vice president of the Tri-M National Music Honor Society. He was also excelling in his classes.

“To be honest, I had the tools for college but I had no idea how to go about getting into college or applying.”

Devin Gibbs ’14
Devin Gibbs '14

Still, when it was time for college, Gibbs was on his own. “To be honest, I had the tools for college but I had no idea how to go about getting into college or applying,” he said. He ended up applying to schools he had heard of and to Colby—because it was in his hometown.

Once admitted to Colby, he discovered that one of his close friends’ parents—the “most successful people” he knew—were Colby alumni. Seeing their lives and hearing their Colby stories encouraged him to enroll.

His first challenge was picking classes, and Education Professor Mark Tappan, Gibbs’s academic advisor, was the one to help. “He was actually the first one to sit me down and be like, ‘This is how college classes work,’” Gibbs said. He later took an education class with Tappan and did an independent study of societal pressures on underprivileged boys to under-succeed.

“It really put a lot of things into perspective for me and [about] the world in general,” Gibbs said. To this day, those ideas have stayed with him.

But education wasn’t going to be his major. “I had always played instruments but I had taught myself. I’d never had an actual lesson and I had heard that music majors get free lessons.” So, he pursued a music major and planned to take all the available pre-med courses.

Then, the saxophone changed it all.

In his first year, music led him to Eric Thomas, director of jazz and wind ensembles. “If Mark was a turning point, Eric was a huge factor in my life for sure,” said Gibbs. “I didn’t have any real Black role models.”

For Gibbs, Colby was a different world within the only world he knew. “Waterville has some of the poorest people I’ve ever met,” he said. “Yet I’ve also interacted with some of the wealthiest people I’ve ever met at Colby as well.” For the first time here, he saw he was poorer than he thought he was; he learned there were many more clothing brands than JCPenney; and he met people from all over the world. “I had never had the opportunity to really travel, but even staying in my hometown of Waterville, Maine, I was exposed to the world really for the first time,” he said.

As he navigated life at Colby, Gibbs’s relationship with Thomas grew stronger. He started babysitting Thomas’s son, William, and, just as Thomas became a role model for Gibbs, Gibbs became a mentor for William. That was also how he met Thomas’s wife, Tilden, a renowned biology professor. “I would say it’s a typical Colby thing that we get that close to our students,” she said. “It’s less common that someone just becomes a part of your family.”

Over winter break sophomore year, he took care of Tilden’s lab in the Olin Science Center, watching over her fiddler crabs and hissing cockroaches—which led to another milestone.

“What I saw in him was someone who was going to become a very talented research scientist, very early on when he first started working in my lab.”

Andrea R. Tilden, J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology

Early on, Tilden noted Gibbs’s interest in science and biology. But he was not yet ready to carve his way into the major, she observed, and suggested he take one of her classes, neurobiology. “I just gave him a little jumpstart,” she said.

With that nudge, Gibbs discovered his potential in biology, too. “I crashed it,” he said, describing how well he did in class. His success led to a coveted research assistant position in Tilden’s lab.

“What I saw in him was someone who was going to become a very talented research scientist, very early on when he first started working in my lab,” said Tilden. Together, they examined the expression of circadian rhythm proteins, which regulate cycles in our bodies, like sleep and hunger.

Tilden was always a step ahead of Gibbs in envisioning what he was capable of achieving. “She was the one who put the idea of a Ph.D. in my head,” Gibbs said. “To be honest, I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was before I went to Colby.”

And there was another moment of realization. Summer after his sophomore year, Gibbs began helping Tilden with the Colby Achievement Program in Sciences (CAPS)—a program that equips incoming Colby students with skills in natural science courses. Tilden put Gibbs on the spot, asking him to teach CAPS students during their stint at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, a Colby partner. Marker in hand, Gibbs nervously started explaining translation and transcription of cells.

“He was able to, just right off the top of his head, explain all of these complex molecular processes to them,” Tilden said. Gibbs, on the other hand, realized he enjoyed teaching. “That was the final factor,” he said, “I’m going to get my Ph.D.”

His later years at Colby were filled with music, research, and football. During summers, he continued assisting Tilden with CAPS and ran a jazz camp for high school students with Thomas. (Interestingly, Gibbs himself was in Thomas’s camp as a high schooler, but didn’t meet him then.)

In hindsight, Gibbs, a biology and music double major, said, “My biggest winning experience was actually being in the lab with Andrea,” and added: “But what a Colby education has taught me is how to learn. It exposed me to a wealth of different topics. … I wanted to be a scientist but I didn’t have to give up music. I didn’t have to give up athletics.”

With graduation ahead, Tilden suggested he apply for a research assistant position at Boston Children’s Hospital to work with Dr. Louis Kunkel, who discovered the biggest gene in the human genome. Tilden believed Gibbs and Kunkel would be a great match. And they were.

As Kunkel’s research assistant after graduation, Gibbs studied Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy—a severe genetic disease that causes muscles to break down, leaving patients wheelchair bound by the age of 10 and decreasing life expectancy to early 20s. As they searched for a cure, Gibbs was promoted to lead research assistant, coauthored seven papers, and attended international conferences. “I went from poor Waterville to Colby and now interacting with some of the most famous scientists in the world,” he said.

As Gibbs continues to make remarkable achievements at the graduate level, he’s also thinking about the next step. While that’s as yet unclear, he does know he wants to be in a place where he can have an impact—to be someone’s Mark Tappan, Eric Thomas, or Andrea Tilden.

“I would love,” he said, “to be a professor.”

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