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Spotlight On

Rosemary Gillespie, Windmill 1975, Professor of Environmental Science

A Love of Life

A product of an all-girl’s boarding school for six years, I remember the move to Gordonstoun being exciting, daring - and very intimidating. Plus est en vous - what did that mean? The utter exhilaration of the next couple of years was unexpected. Forty years on, I’m cuddled up in my sleeping bag high in the forest of Molokai, Hawaii, staring out of a small, cracked window pane at the relentless soft rain, and I think back on my first camping trip through Glen Affric as part of my Duke of Edinburgh's Award. Back on Molokai, after a night collecting spiders, we come back to the cabin and get the propane stove ready to cook dinner; as we talk about the night’s activities, I’m reminded of a winter trip to the Cairngorms, and coming back to a bothy near Aviemore, cold and wet, before building a huge fire and talking and laughing in the warmth of the flames. How little things have changed. However, there’s a reason for that: Gordonstoun was where I learned not only to value the beauty of the natural world and appreciate what it had to offer, but also that I could - and should - live up to my dreams.

Rosemary Gillespie, night work on Hawaii   Rosemary Gillespie - collecting spider specimens

It was with Mr Cowx that I had my first taste of research: We went on a trip to the Summer Isles to trap small mammals. I recall the feeling that we were discovering the inner secrets of this seemingly barren landscape, as we quietly measured and weighed the little animals in the darkness of the bothy lamplight, before releasing them back into the night.  I felt tremendously privileged to be given such insights into the natural world and I wanted to learn more. Studying zoology at the University of Edinburgh was a natural next step.

It was during my final year at Edinburgh that I learned of research being done at the University of Tennessee in the USA. This was exactly what I would have loved to do! The research used spiders to explore ecological decisions that animals make. While social pressures at the time expected that I find a “real job”, I had been instilled with the philosophy of endeavour. Thus, I applied to graduate school at the University of Tennessee and headed off into a very alien environment - holding on firmly to the ideals espoused by Kurt Hahn of the importance of an “undefeatable spirit” and “tenacity in pursuit”.  

As a graduate student in Tennessee, I did my research at a site in the Smoky Mountains in an area of outstanding beauty and tranquility, allowing me to explore the bounds of scientific creativity. I experienced the necessary frustration of being unable to key-out a spider or insect, interspersed by the few moments of euphoria on figuring out what one specimen was; the panic at being told to do my homework on a computer at a time when I didn’t even know what a computer looked like! However, over the course of my graduate career, despite being far from home and with a very uncertain future, I caught a glimpse of academic life, and the possibility of living my dream.

Rosemary Gillespie - the aptly named Happy Face spider

I left the University of Tennessee to take a postdoctoral position at the University of Hawaii on the feeding behavior of the aptly named “happy face spider”. However, after just a couple of days in the field I happened upon something truly extraordinary: close relatives of the long jawed spiders, on which I had done my PhD in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, were in great abundance in the Hawaiian forests, and the diversity of species - in terms of their form, behavior, and ecology - was utterly inconceivable. But, my funding was for only six months. So I spent the next few years scrounging up (really) small pots of funding to allow me to keep working on this heretofore unknown and largely undescribed “adaptive radiation”. A product of the Gordonstoun education, I couldn’t possibly turn my back on such a rich research opportunity. It took me four years before I published my first papers on the Hawaiian spider diversity, with much of that time almost living in the field. However, that period was invaluable and gave me deep insights into the radiation, paving the way for the subsequent 25+ years of my research.

Rosemary Gillespie - with son Will in Hawaii   Rosemary Gillespie - with sons Will and Mel in the Grand Canyon

I was offered a position at the University of Hawaii in the early 1990s, joined there by my husband and fellow biologist, George Roderick, in 1993. In 1999 we moved to the University of California at Berkeley with our young children, William and Melrose.  Coming to the present, the boys are almost grown up and off to university. But the nature of my work has changed little, with my research still based in the high mountains of Hawaii, as well as Tahiti, Fiji, and other little isolated spots in the Pacific where the diversity of life has taken entirely unique trajectories. Perhaps most importantly, I still love what I do - my work is my passion, my hobby, my life. What more could anyone ask for - Plus est en vous.

To read more Alumni articles, follow this link.


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