Bob Gilman puts a band-aid on a teenage boy's arm while his mother watches in the background

La Familia Gilman

A prof’s protégés save lives in Peru

By Christen Brownlee • Photo by Larry Canner

Over the past 28 years that Bob Gilman, MD, has spent in Peru, the International Health professor and his colleagues have accomplished a lot.

They’ve developed a new test for tuberculosis that dramatically shrinks the time and sample size needed to reliably detect even drug-resistant strains that other tests are hard-pressed to identify—a boon for the tens of thousands of Peruvians struck with tuberculosis each year. They’ve identified city drinking water as an important source of Helicobacter pylori infection in Peruvian children, and thus a way to prevent widespread gastritis and ulcers. They’ve also discovered previously unknown bacteria and protozoa that are causing emerging infections, including cyclospora, a protozoa that causes diarrhea.

His work in Peru has resulted in more than 400 papers in prestigious journals. He even learned to live well there as a foreigner, raising two kids with his wife, Jo Gilman, and residing in the country throughout the uprising by the Maoist insurgent group, the Shining Path.

But the accomplishment that seems to matter the most to Gilman is the strong network of research colleagues and trainees that he’s strung together across this country.

“If I had to say what I’ve been really good at doing, it’s bringing Peruvians to the U.S. for training and getting them back to Peru to build what I hope is a sustainable operation,” he says. “The people here need me like a hole in the head. My goal is to build a sustainable unit that doesn’t depend on me in most ways.”

By choosing smart junior colleagues and students and giving them responsibility for projects, Gilman empowers them to eventually become leaders in their own fields. Later, after many of these young researchers pursue further training in the U.S. and other countries, they come back to launch their own labs—taking Gilman’s philosophy to a new generation.

Gilman’s trainees stretch across Peru like “a giant fan,” he says, sometimes working individually on their own projects and grants, sometimes coming together to pool their expertise.

“These people are completely able to do everything without me,” he says, “and that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

Four members of the vast Gilman network share their stories here.

Why Wait? Apply Now!

Willy Lescano, PhD ’08, MHS ’02

I basically consider Bob to be a second father. I have worked with him for more than two decades. He has guided and assisted my personal and professional growth since I entered the health field.

When I was in engineering school, I did a small mathematical modeling project on malaria transmission. Hugo [Garcia] found out about this—he’s my first cousin. He’d been working with Bob for a few years, and he wanted me to show my project to him. When I did, Bob was very enthusiastic, and I went on to work with him on various projects. Eventually his wife hired me to do data analysis work for her NGO. The best part was being around to continue to work with Bob and his students.

Eight years later, I was looking for the next step. I knew that Bob had helped several of the young people he worked with go to Hopkins to get their PhDs, including Hugo, but I thought it was something I might be ready for in five years or so. Bob said, “Why don’t you apply now?”

I went to Hopkins, and it changed my life. A year after I returned to Peru, an opportunity at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 6 in Peru opened up. Now I’m head of the Department of Parasitology here, and I also run the Public Health Training Program that, among other activities, has a master’s in epidemiology [program] as a joint project between Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and the U.S. Navy.

I’ve learned so much from Bob, and it would be presumptuous to say I’ve taught him much. But from me, I’m sure he’s learned that people can be very stubborn. He thought starting this master’s program was a very ambitious task—not that we couldn’t do it but that we might be aiming too high. But we stuck to it, and it’s really paid off. We’ve trained over 100 junior scientists to do research in our own country. They’re Peruvians committed to solving Peruvian public health problems.

Whenever I introduce myself, I say I’m a “Gilmanite,” one of the children of Gilman, and now the students I work with are the third generation in this family.

Best Investment Ever

Hugo Garcia, MD, PhD ’02

Around 1988, I was doing my MD thesis work on cysticercosis—a neurological infection caused by a tapeworm that spends part of its lifespan encysted in pig muscles—at the time when Bob was starting new research on the subject.

We knew that cysticercosis caused a significant number of epilepsy cases in Peru, but no one knew how important it actually was or how we might be able to prevent or best treat new cases. Bob spoke to my thesis advisor, and then contacted me to see whether I’d be interested in helping him. At the time, research was quite an unusual activity in Peru, so it was an interesting prospect.

Bob intrigued me in many ways—it takes an out-of-the-box personality to go to a developing country, find your staff there and devote your life to infectious disease research. Bob behaves as a Peruvian, but he doesn’t speak as a Peruvian. Let’s put it this way: His Spanish was a driving force for us to learn English.

But he’s also influenced me in many ways. When you’re a junior researcher, you usually begin working under other people, doing their research for them. But the process with Bob was completely different—with that first project, he asked me to lead. He even asked me to write the paper, which was something completely unheard of. He never behaved like a boss, more like an equal.

Now I’m a full-time researcher and professor of microbiology at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, and it’s all Bob’s fault that I ended up here. Through my work with students—who I’m training with Bob’s methods—we have discovered an antiparasitic treatment that can reduce the number of seizures in individuals with cysticercosis. We’ve also developed better ways to diagnose this condition so patients can start treatments faster.

I’ve continued Bob’s tradition of sending students abroad for training so they can come back and lead. It’s a very expensive investment, but it’s paying off with these developments and interventions that are improving the health and welfare of this country.

The Secret of Teaching

Manuela Verastegui, PhD ’10

When I was in the beginning of getting my master’s degree in microbiology from Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in 1984, Dr. Gilman came to Peru wanting to do research on giardia, an intestinal parasite that causes diarrhea. When Dr. Gilman asked if he could work with some students, my mentor volunteered me. That was very lucky because in Peru it’s very difficult to do research since we don’t have much funding.

Dr. Gilman encouraged me to get a PhD in microbiology in Peru, and then used a training grant so I could get a second PhD in public health from Johns Hopkins. I’m now an associate professor at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia. I would never have been here without his encouragement. Here, I’m part of a team doing cellular and molecular biology work to help improve our understanding of a variety of tropical diseases. For example, we recently published a paper about a mechanism that Taenia solium larva use to adhere to host tissue, findings that help us understand the mechanism this parasite uses to cause cysticercosis.

For a good researcher, it’s important to do not only research but also to teach. Not all researchers have this mentality, especially in my country. But Dr. Gilman says that he doesn’t keep secrets from anybody—he loves sharing everything. Now, I advise students in the same way that Dr. Gilman taught me, teaching them everything they want to learn, and encouraging them to leave and teach others. Something very peculiar is that Dr. Gilman is always motivating people to continue to prosper in their careers, to learn to write articles and grants. He is also a very kind person because he always cares about the welfare and the personal life of each person working with him.

I’ve known Dr. Gilman now for nearly 28 years, and over all that time he’s never gotten tired of working, and he has an incredible memory—even though he might have been away from Peru for two months, he’ll remember everything that people said at the last meeting. I tell Dr. Gilman that he’s younger than all the young people around him! He has so much energy.

Follow the Leader

Angela Bayer, PhD ’08, MHS ’04

I came to Peru when I was a master’s student in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health to intern at the International Planned Parenthood Federation and research adolescent sexuality. Eventually I was looking for a place to do my research, and a colleague said I should talk with Bob. Bob said he didn’t know anything about my topic, but he told me to come work at his study site, and we’d take it from there. Even though supposedly he didn’t know anything about adolescent sexuality research, he was frequently trying to connect me with other people who could further my work or tell me about related research that was going on elsewhere in Peru.

Part of his extraordinary body of knowledge might come from how Bob operates. Peru, like all of Latin America, has a very divided society. You can stay in nice neighborhoods and not see anything beyond those, but that’s definitely not how Bob works. He’s out at study sites, talking to the people who live there, finding out how things really work. It’s incredibly rare.

Years later, when I was preparing the final defense for my PhD dissertation, Bob came to me with a proposition. Chagas disease was spreading in Peru, and he wanted me and another student to take over and use our analytical methods to collect information. We ultimately gathered evidence that migration might play a big role—people were moving from small towns to big cities, and vice versa, bringing with them the parasite that causes this disease.

Many researchers would think it’s crazy to hand over a project to someone who doesn’t even have her PhD yet, but that’s not Bob. He thinks if you give people some training and some tools and tell them you believe in them, they get things done. Now, that’s the role I take when I lead a study. I think of the way Bob does things, and then I try to follow that as closely as possible. I’m very junior, but if I have the opportunity to reach out to other people and help them in their careers, I strive to do that.