In memoriam: Tracie Moniece Gibson, inspiring educator who created programs to support undergraduates in science

Tracie Moniece Gibson

Tracie Moniece Gibson passed away unexpectedly on October 16, 2019. She was 52. Tracie was active in the work of the Education and Minorities Affairs Committees of ASCB. A wonderful profile by John Fleischman in the July 2012 ASCB Newsletter tells Tracie’s story more completely than I am able to do here.1

Tracie earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell College, a small liberal arts school in Mount Vernon, IA. Cornell biology professor Bob Black recruited Tracie into his research group, and he became her lifelong role model. Eventually, she realized that she wanted to be like Bob Black, and that meant earning a PhD so that she could teach undergraduates. That is why Tracie pursued graduate school at Purdue University, where she did her thesis work in my lab.

As a PhD student, Tracie discovered that a mild urea treatment dissociated the three-headed outer arm axonemal dynein from Tetrahymena thermophila into a 19S b/g dimer and the 14S a heavy chain, and that the parts could subsequently be reconstituted. Using Tracie’s method, Shiori Toba in Yoko Yano Toyoshima’s lab at the University of Tokyo studied the properties of the different species. The parent dynein, the b/g dimer, and the reconstituted 22S particle each bound microtubules in an ATP-sensitive fashion and each produced microtubule gliding. In contrast, the isolated a chain associated with microtubules in an ATP-insensitive fashion and did not support motility. These results suggest that the different heavy chains are functionally specialized, as predicted by the “multi-dynein” hypothesis.2

Following postdoctoral work with John Young at the University of Wisconsin and the Salk Institute, Tracie joined the faculty of the University of Texas Permian Basin, where her lab studied the intracellular trafficking of retroviruses. Tracie enjoyed mentoring her students, and several are pursuing careers in science. After eight successful years at UTPB, Tracie left the oil fields of West Texas to join the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she taught introductory biology. In 2017 Tracie accepted the position of Director of Student Success and Diversity in the College of Natural Sciences of the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst.

UMass was Tracie’s final and, I think, most rewarding stop. In a short time she accomplished so much, creating and directing programs that support undergraduates in science, including BioPioneers, the Lee Science Impact Program, and the Forsythe-Grange and the Transfer Student Alliance peer mentoring programs. Tracie directed the UMass Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, and was part of the leadership team of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence program. It was at UMass that Tracie realized her full potential—to mentor students and prod them to greatness, as Professor Black did for her a generation before. And it was at UMass where Tracie found new role models, academic leaders who inspired and mentored her. In one of our last conversations, Tracie shared her new dream, of taking on greater leadership roles to help students.

On the surface, Tracie’s career arc is not remarkable. But a closer examination reveals much more about Tracie—and about us.

Hailing from Detroit, it was Tracie’s dream to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But during her first semester there, the behaviors of a few white students made her, as an African American, feel unwelcomed, and she reluctantly left Michigan. That’s how she came to Cornell College where she met Bob Black.

Because Purdue was concerned about Tracie’s standardized test scores, she was asked to first complete a master’s thesis before proceeding to the PhD program. Tracie’s master’s work on the characterization of the ciliary outer arm dynein from Paramecium tetraurelia went well, and so, as agreed, she applied to the PhD program. But suddenly, it seemed that her dreams would abruptly end. The admissions committee, upholding the “high standards” of the program, assumed that Tracie wasn’t fit to join the PhD program.
The rejection appeared inevitable until one of the committee members, assistant professor David Sanders, spoke up and asked to examine the evidence. He actually read the thesis, was sufficiently impressed, and persuaded the committee that Tracie was qualified to join the PhD program. That’s how Tracie had the opportunity to discover a method that enabled us to understand the contributions of separated dynein components.

Tracie moved to Missouri because she wanted to teach. Thus, it was particularly painful when a small number of students circulated a petition calling for Tracie’s dismissal as their instructor. Their complaints: Tracie had high expectations, she gave difficult tests, she expected the students to study hard and read the textbook, and, most grievously, Tracie had a style of communicating that some did not like. A minority of students made life miserable for Tracie and for the majority of students in her class. And that’s why Tracie sought a new opportunity and came to UMass.

Tracie’s resilience was breathtaking, soaring above ignorant words and actions, “going high when others go low.” Refusing to be the victim of small-minded bullies, she chose to focus her energy on learning from people like Bob Black, David Sanders, and her colleagues at UMass. Tracie inspires each of us to step up and try to make a difference for our students.

The University of Massachusetts has established the Dr. Tracie Moniece Gibson Scholar Program (

1Fleischman J (2012). Tracie M. Gibson. ASCB Newsletter 35(6), 19–20.

2Toba S, Gibson TM, Shiroguchi K, Toyoshima YY, Asai DJ (2004). Properties of the full‐length heavy chains of Tetrahymena ciliary outer arm dynein separated by urea treatment. Cell Motil. Cytoskel. 58, 30–38.

About the Author:

David Asai is Senior Director for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical institute.