Wiess School of Natural Sciences
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Michael Gustin—a sabbatical sampling

Gustin Sabbatical

Courtesy of Rice Magazine, Summer 2014

Award-winning Professor of BioSciences Michael Gustin applied for a yearlong sabbatical soon after he’d completed his tenure as Wiess College master (2006–2011), a job that kept him “pretty involved in college life.” To those familiar with Rice’s system of residential college governance, that’s an understatement. While living at Wiess, Gustin ran a research lab and taught large classes. “I was pretty stretched.”

“Because I was so involved, I thought I really needed to get away,” he said. And so he did, to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. There, Gustin rented a small flat and rode his bike two miles uphill to campus in the morning and back down every evening.

“They have the largest research group in the world for what I work on,” said Gustin, who is an expert in medical mycology and fungal biology. Specifically, Gustin studies the biology of Candida albicans. Normally present in humans, Candida doesn’t cause a problem “unless your immune system is depressed,” he said. Gustin went to work with a longtime collaborator, Alistair Brown, who heads a “super-research group” of more than 50 researchers in the School of Medical Sciences. What Gustin particularly enjoyed was the chance to work at the bench, trading ideas and knowledge with students who were just beginning their careers. People came from all over the world to study there.

“In a late stage of your career, late stage of your life, to go away for six months to a completely different country and work there … it’s challenging, right?” said Gustin. While away, he used Skype to keep in frequent touch with his research lab back at Rice. That usually made for long days. His family stayed back in Houston, except for a brief visit and tour of the country in September. (Gustin returned to Houston for the second semester of his sabbatical.)

In addition to the pleasure of being able to conduct experiments, absorb new ideas and mentor doctoral students, the sabbatical, Gustin said, “was a kind of restart for me that was really helpful — reinvigorating my mind.”

Another aspect of getting away that Gustin enjoyed was the lack of interruption. “My phone never rang. I never expected it to ring.” This was in marked contrast to his time as a master, where distractions were the rule rather than the exception. “But there I could focus. It was amazing. It was lovely.”