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Chemist’s Study of Light-Producing Molecules Earns Him the NSF’s Coveted CAREER Award

Mar 22, 2021 |

What will the next few generations of smartphones offer? Holographic displays, color-changing frames and pliable screens are a few of the innovations we may see in the not-so-distant-future. And while engineers and coders will be responsible for making that technology possible, there’s a good chance we’ll also need to thank Robert Gilliard.

An assistant professor of chemistry in the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Gilliard researches the synthesis of chemicals for energy storage and for use in electronics that detect, emit and control light. One aspect of that work involving the chemistry of computer displays at the molecular level has earned him one of the National Science Foundation’s coveted CAREER awards, a prestigious honor that recognizes the country’s most promising junior faculty members in science and engineering.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Robert Gilliard has won a coveted National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his work synthesizing chemicals for use in electronics.
Molly Angevine

One of the challenges engineers will face in developing new technologies is being able to find substances that allow computer displays to produce colors. Gilliard’s team studies strategies for incorporating boron into chemical compounds to help them understand how to harness the element’s unique properties. Boron has the capacity, Gilliard’s research shows, to carry and transfer electric charge and to produce the colors we see on our cellphones and on materials that will be used to help us connect with tomorrow’s technology.

“In collaboration with the Chemical Engineering Department here at UVA, we've already started to explore the device applications of some of these boron-based materials that we make, and we're seeing that the utility is probably going to be pretty important going forward,” Gilliard said.

His research may also give scientists a better way to “tune” the wavelengths of light at the molecular level. This would give them more control over the quality of light that our devices emit, as well as making the technology of those devices more stable over time, less expensive to produce and less harmful to the environment.

“This is the technology that has resulted in your lights in your home lasting much longer than they did even five years ago,” Gilliard said.  “And I think we have a unique potential to be one of the leaders in this area of boron chemistry.  That’s one of the things that I’m excited about, because there are not many people in the United States exploring the areas of chemistry that we do, and training folks and increasing the United States’ ability to compete globally in this area of science is extremely important.”

To make that work possible, the CAREER award comes with a grant of nearly $700,000, which will fund Gilliard’s research for the next five years. The award is typically given to young faculty members who are both exceptional researchers and exceptional educators.

As director of undergraduate research for the College’s Department of Chemistry, Gilliard is especially interested in creating opportunities to bring diversity to the sciences. In his work with undergraduates, he noticed that a large percentage of transfer students were coming from minority populations. He said he also noticed that while most perform very well at the community college level, they often struggle to make the transition to a research-oriented institution where the standards are higher and class sizes are significantly larger.

The problem, he believes, isn’t with the students. Rather, Gilliard said it’s with how they manage their transition to a new environment with different resources and different expectations. To test his theory, he brought two transfer students into his own research group to see if the experience would help them acclimate to a new educational environment.

“It was my pilot program to see the impact of research on coursework, and what I find is that when these students have a research home, when they have somebody checking on them, when they have a network, they perform better in their classes. There’s just no doubt about it. My experience is not that they don’t have the capacity to learn, it’s that they need some guidance to help them make the transition.”

The CAREER grant will allow him to replicate his pilot program on a larger scale by working with other faculty members to create research opportunities that will give students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in chemistry, including transfer students, the attention and guidance that they need to be successful as they make that crucial transition to life as UVA students.

He also plans to collaborate with UVA’s PhD Plus program, the University-wide initiative to prepare Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars for long-term career success, on a new initiative named “ChemRise.” The program aims to create networking and mentoring opportunities for young scientists from underrepresented communities by connecting them with leaders, role models and changemakers in a broad range of STEM professions, from science policy to the chemical industry.

“Students will get the opportunity to learn about connecting the valuable skills developed during scientific research training to a wide variety of careers,” said Sonali Majumdar, the associate director of graduate professional development for UVA’s Office of Graduate and Postdoc Affairs who designs and administers the PhD Plus program. Majumdar will work with Gilliard to implement his ideas. “By supporting the educational well-being of student researchers from diverse backgrounds and experiences, we aspire toward a stronger, more diverse and inclusive research culture and learning environment.”

The award comes during an exceptional year for Gilliard. Within the last twelve months, he has received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund grant and a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant. He was named by Chemical and Engineering News as one of its “Talented 12” for 2020, an elite group of young scholars who are considered rising stars in the world of chemistry; he won a 2021 Thieme Chemistry Journal Award for promising young researchers; he was named a Negative Emissions Science Scialog Fellow by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement; and he received a Collaborative Innovation Award to purse projects with researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Michigan. Most recently, Gilliard was nominated by 3M scientists and selected to receive a three-year $15,000/year 3M Non-tenured Faculty Award for outstanding research and academic leadership, and he received the 2021 Organometallics Distinguished Author Award for research that has had a profound impact on the field of organometallic chemistry.

“Robert is an elite junior scientist,” said Jill Venton, chair of the College’s Department of Chemistry. “His contributions in both chemical research and teaching are outstanding, and his ability to win so many national awards in the past year has raised the visibility of Virginia Chemistry.”

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