For the last year, Mark Gignac has served as the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research’s director of research, helping with projects such as a plant-reading drone and a library of licensable bacteria.
As of Wednesday, he will be moving up to replace Jerry Gwaltney, who retired as executive director in July after working at the Institute for four years.
Gignac wanted to take on the lead position to continue to grow and serve the community he has lived in since he was a senior in high school.
“In this position, every day truly is a different day, in both the research end and as director,” Gignac said. “I love learning and taking on new challenges. I think that’s just part of my personality type.”
Before he became a part of the Institute, Gignac worked in his father’s business, eventually taking it over, and served on Danville City Council for a term.
“We are fortunate to have someone of Mark’s caliber ready to step in and lead right here in southern Virginia,” Don Merricks, chairman of the Institute board of directors, said. “Mark is the kind of leader that offers the opportunity for all within the organization to lead and to grow in their respective fields while working collaboratively with our partners to make sure that the Institute is fulfilling our mission.”
He has been serving as the interim director since Gwaltney retired, and while Gignac thinks the Institute already runs very smoothly, there are some things he’d like to change.
“My goal is to maybe run a little more business-like in a sense, be much more service oriented,” Gignac said. “We have a great asset and I just want to see us be a little bit better…. When I took the Research job,” Gignac said. “I tried to put a business spin on it, and I think we’ve accomplished that, although you never get to the end of the road.“
One of the things worked on in the research department under Gignac’s leadership was answering the question “How does this benefit the region?”
When the answer was unfavorable, Gignac worked with research teams to evaluate and change the research in a way that would be more useful. They now have an endophyte library that is a revenue stream for the Institute, as well as research opportunities.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to be more relevant to the community,” Gignac said, noting that the community was not just Danville and Pittsylvania County, but the entire six county and two city region that the Institute serves.
The Institute focuses on research, advanced learning opportunities and economic development opportunities in Patrick, Franklin, Henry, Pittsylvania, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties and the cities of Martinsville and Danville.
Senior Scientist Scott Lowman worked under Gignac for a year, and had nothing but good things to say about him.
“His business background brought a different feel to the research department,” Lowman said. “I can’t wait to see what he can do at the executive director level. Everyone here is excited about what he can do to make the institute a leader in economic development for the region.”
Pittsylvania County Economic Development Director Matt Rowe echoed the excitement.
“I’m ecstatic,” Rowe said in a phone conversation. “He’s always been regionally focused. It’s great to have someone in that position that you can call on and rely on to work for the region.”
One of the projects Gignac pointed to as being incredibly beneficial for the community was the advanced machining program that has led to three economic developments in the last 15 months.
“Everything we do in this building had better be promoting the region, promoting southern Virginia,” Gignac said.
When Gignac is not working, which he said was rare, he can be found with his family. He joked that he and his wife are loving being “empty nesters,” and are watching a lot of British murder mystery TV shows but he loves to spend time with his four children as well. When he takes time off, he loves to boat on Smith Mountain Lake.
“I’m one of these knuckleheads, that honestly, work is very gratifying,” Gignac said. “For me, one of the very gratifying things about working here is that we are working for the community. My heart has always been a part of that. What I was doing just as an interested citizen, I’m now getting paid to do, which is pretty neat.”
When asked what he wanted community members to know about him, Gignac said that he loved this community.
“It’s less of a job to me,” Gignac said. “At this point in my life, it’s an opportunity to do what I’ve enjoyed and to have an impact to support the professionals that are so involved in making the community better. I think I’m doing this for the right reasons.”