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June 15, 2018

Grad pursuing chemistry Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon

FGCU faculty, research opportunities part of winning formula for alumnus

Jamie Gaitor could have earned a degree at the University of Florida or University of Miami — both had accepted his admission applications. But what might not have happened at those schools for Gaitor, who graduated instead from Florida Gulf Coast University, was the chance to earn full-scholarship acceptance into a Ph.D. chemistry program at prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Thanks to his own hard work and initiative, the help of FGCU professors and assistance from the Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, the 23-year-old Gaitor is moving from the laboratories in Seidler Hall to those at one of the top research institutions in the country. For three years in a row, he also received the Rockin’ Christmas Endowed Scholarship established by PrivateSky Aviation Services Inc., the Vincent and Illona Wolanin Family and the Dr. John and Liz Kagan Family.

“I got opportunities here at FGCU — the chance to do research as an undergraduate — I wouldn’t have gotten at those bigger schools, where you don’t get the close interaction with professors that result in these kinds of chances,” Gaitor said. “Although it has been tougher for me majoring in biology, with my minor in chemistry and the opportunity to do research here for about four years, I have more of a chemistry resume.”

Jamie Gaitor praises FGCU’s faculty and research opportunities for undergraduates.

The Ph.D. program Gaitor is entering will take him four to five years to complete, “maybe a little longer because I have to take additional chemistry classes to get up to speed,” he said. The Florida native graduated from FGCU in summer 2017, and spent two more semesters taking courses, doing lab research and “gearing up for grad school.” He’ll start as a research assistant at Carnegie Mellon in July, then assume a job as a teaching assistant in the fall.

The minority participation program that helped boost Gaitor is implemented at FGCU by Claude Villiers, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Civic Engineeringin the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering. Gaitor is one of several minority students at FGCU who are reaching the upper echelons of postgraduate higher education thanks to Villiers and the program.

As Villiers explains it, “The purpose of this project is to increase undergraduate and graduate enrollment, retention and graduation of underserved populations within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The program is structured to advance FGCU’s mission” to achieve national prominence in undergraduate education with expanding recognition for graduate programs.

“For the last five years, I provided project group support to 30 students at FGCU to cultivate a research environment for these under-represented groups,” Villiers continued. “These students worked with faculty members on research projects in both the College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences. About a third of these students, like Jamie, advanced to graduate studies in their respective fields of interest.”

Besides Villiers, Gaitor also credits Arsalan Mirjafari, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics, for giving him the skills and confidence for his opportunity at Carnegie Mellon.

“I took Dr. Mirjafari for organic chemistry, and he talked a lot about his research in class,” Gaitor said. “I was fascinated by it, asked him more about it, and showed him that I was a hard worker. That’s what it took to get him to help me develop the skills I’ll use to earn my Ph.D.”

Mirjafari, who ironically is spending the summer at Carnegie Mellon for his sabbatical, is obviously proud of his student’s accomplishments.

“Jamie was an incredibly talented undergraduate researcher in my lab since spring 2015. He worked on many projects in my lab, focusing on the synthesis, characterization and applications of new compounds, called ionic liquids,” Mirjafari said. “This collaboration resulted in five peer-reviewed publications in top-tier journals and presentations in American Chemical Society national meetings, as well as multiple scholarships at FGCU, such as the Steven and Carol Brodie Scholarship.

“In fact, my whole research program has benefited greatly from having Jamie in my group,” Mirjafari continued. “He is truly a great person to bounce ideas off, and he has helped me design the majority of my current research projects. I am impressed and moved by his capability of organizing, his sense of involvement and high professionalism. I think Jamie will have a great future as a successful chemist. … He is one of my finest students, an outstanding and talented scientist.”

Extraordinary praise from a mentor, but one suspects that Gaitor will live up to it. Asked why he decided to transition from biology to chemistry, Gaitor said he likes the “problem-solving aspect of chemistry, where things that you can do on a smaller level can have great impact on a larger level. Biology is a lot more ‘macro-stuff,’ application of existing things, but as a chemist, I can create something and see it from synthesis all the way through to where it’s actually applied.”

Gaitor knows there will be some adjustments in his immediate future. When he’s living in Pittsburgh, he’ll learn it’s easier to find ethnic delicacies such as pierogis than the cracked conch he loves to eat. As for hip-hop, his music of choice, Gaitor can catch Pittsburgh-based artist Wiz Khalifa around town. To pursue his favorite pastime — watching basketball — he’ll leave Dunk City behind and choose among Carnegie Mellon and four other Pittsburgh schools competing intercollegiately. The temporary separation from his girlfriend, FGCU psychology major Amoni Griffin won’t be easy, either. Perhaps the biggest culture shock he faces: As a young man born in Miami and raised in The Bahamas and Southwest Florida, Gaitor doesn’t know what to expect living and driving in his first Northeast winter.

But change also will be rewarding. As will Gaitor’s future.

“I’m leaning toward pursuing a career in academia so I can give back, identify students who are in the position I was once in and help them get where they want to go,” said Gaitor, inspired by the way FGCU’s Mirjafari and Villiers helped him. “Our chemistry department here has been super encouraging, super helpful. With everything that has happened for me here, it has turned out great.”