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Irma Gigli, MD, knew she wanted to become a physician at five years old. "When I played doctor as a child, I gave a diet that consisted of avoiding all
the things I didn't like and eating many pieces of cake and candies," recalls Dr. Gigli, who grew up to become a highly accomplished immunologist and
dermatologist as well as the first faculty member at the UTHealth Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases
After completing medical school in her native Argentina, Dr. Gigli was determined to become a physician. After finishing medical school, she left home for the United States and applied to a position at the World Health Organization. "They didn't think that the position was suitable for a young woman," she said. "They said it was more appropriate for someone who had reached the 'contemplative' stage of life."
Undeterred, Dr. Gigli pursued her joint research interests in dermatology and immunology. Her career took off, rising from her first medical residency to prestigious fellowships, Harvard Medical School faculty, director of her own laboratory, and election to the nation's foremost medical and science academies. "I was working at institutions where at the time you could count the number of women on one hand," she said.
After serving as Chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University of California-San Diego, Dr. Gigli and her husband, Hans J. Müller-Eberhard, MD, a renowned immunologist, moved to Houston in 1995 to help start the IMM. Her husband became the IMM's founding director, while she led the IMM's Center for Immunology and Autoimmune Diseases. She also served on faculty at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS).
George Stancel, PhD, Executive Vice President for Academic and Research Affairs, was Dean of GSBS during Dr. Gigli's tenure there. "She could have just sat in her office, written books and articles and gotten even more famous," he said. "But she always took the time to meet students and junior faculty and help them however she could."
Spurred by the memory of her father, Dr. Gigli committed to financially supporting both the IMM and GSBS. "He truly believed that you have to help people who are less fortunate than you," she said. "I grew up with that." Just as her parents supported her medical education, Dr. Gigli wanted to open paths of success for students with financial need. So she funded the Gigli Family Endowed Scholarship at GSBS to assist students who — as she was — are the first in their families to attend graduate school. When her husband passed away in 1998, she created The Hans J. Müller-Eberhard Chair in Immunology at the IMM in his memory to advance the research to which he dedicated his life.
Dr. Gigli also made the extraordinary decision to leave two estate commitments of $2 million each to establish The Luis Gigli and Irma Gigli, MD Fellowship in Immunology at GSBS and The Luis Gigli and Irma Gigli, MD Endowment in Immunology at the IMM. "I cannot overstate how monumental this is for both schools," says Dr. John F. Hancock, Executive Director of the IMM. "This helps put us on the level of much larger institutions in terms of resources for faculty and student recruitment." And recently, Dr. Gigli gave $50,000 each to the Müller-Eberhard Memorial Lecture Series and Gigli Family Scholarship — matched through UTHealth's Game Changers Initiative.
For Dr. Gigli, these gifts are symbols of her commitment to advance the medical profession that she helped shape — and others will shape after her. "You can't take a tiny piece and say this is what medicine is," she said. "It's the whole concept. Right now stem cells are the latest breakthrough. But this will pass, and a new generation will move medicine forward."