Alumni Profile: Sunny Gilbert
Before the start of her freshman year at Mizzou, Sunny Gilbert spent a summer as an intern with the Monsanto Company. Through that experience, her interest in research grew and when she arrived at MU, she was very proactive in getting an undergraduate research position.
“I had so much fun working as an intern with Monsanto that I wanted to keep that up and build skills during the year,” she says. “Rather than just getting a job that would just pay the bills, I really wanted to be doing something that I liked.”
Gilbert, a 2001 graduate of MU with a degree in biochemistry, worked in the lab of Peter Tipton, a biochemistry professor at MU, as a Hughes Research Fellow. Additionally, she spent three more summers working as an intern with Monsanto.
“It was a tremendous opportunity,” Gilbert says about her undergraduate research experience. “You can do all of the learning in the classroom, but to actually see it in action and think about the science you are doing, the data analysis, the implications, reading about what other people are doing and talk with them about what they are doing— that’s how you learn it.”
In Tipton’s lab, Gilbert was involved in the study of bacterial enzymes that synthesize the capsule in which the bacteria embedded themselves as protection against antibiotics and immune responses. She performed the initial work on an enzyme called GDP-mannose dehydrogenase and was an author on a publication that described the complex kinetics that it exhibits.
“She was a great person to have in the lab because she was always curious about what was going on and she was always in a good mood,” Tipton says.
Gilbert often spent nights and weekend working on her research while a student at MU.
“It was an extension of my learning that became incredibly valuable when I was applying for graduate school and also in making decisions about which career path to take,” she says.
In addition to her work in the classroom and research in the lab, Gilbert was an All-American on the Mizzou track & field team. Along with the accolades she received for her performance on the track, Gilbert earned Academic All-Big 12 and Academic All-American honors for her work in the classroom.
“She had to have amazing organization skills to find time to work in the lab on top of all her other commitments,” Tipton says.
Gilbert is one of many biochemistry undergraduate students who have participated in research projects over the years at MU. The support of these departments plays in important role in the students’ undergraduate experience.
“Many of our faculty train undergraduate researchers because we consider that part of our department’s teaching mission,” says Shari Freyermuth, associate teaching professor of biochemistry and assistant dean of MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
Gilbert attended graduate school at Colorado, where she earned her Ph.D., before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at the Damon Runyon Cancer Research lab at Oregon State.
She returned to Monsanto in July of 2010, taking a scientist position. Gilbert says she can go into any lab and instantly think about the implication of what she is doing because of what she learned as an undergraduate researcher at Missouri.
“I learned how to break apart experiments and see what was working and what wasn’t working,” she explains. “It’s like taking a radio apart and putting it back together. That’s what every scientist does every day. That’s what we did then and it is what I still do.”
Gilbert is part of a new program at Monsanto called Emerging Leaders in Science, in which the scientists are able to apply their research and leadership experience across the Global Technology organization.
Recently, Gilbert was back on the Mizzou campus, speaking to a group of graduate and postdoctoral students as part of the Alternative Career Exploration in the Sciences (ACES) seminar series.