Persistence is a Key Ingredient in Chemistry Grad’s Formula for Success
Kelsie Wentz’s dream has always been to have a career in the sciences. This spring she will graduate from the University of Virginia’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences with a Ph.D. from the Department of Chemistry and her pick of post-doctoral research opportunities. However, the milestone achievement follows a series of obstacles that nearly prevented the dream from coming true shortly after she began her graduate studies at UVA.
“Once I took my first chemistry class in high school, I was dead set on chemistry,” Wentz said. “I knew that's what I wanted to pursue.”
As an undergraduate at West Virginia Wesleyan College, pursuing a degree in chemistry, Wentz took an inorganic chemistry course that cemented her conviction that she was on the right path. Her instructor recognized Wentz’s unique interest in the subject and offered her a chance to work in her research lab. A graduate of UVA herself, the instructor also convinced Wentz that the UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences would be an ideal place to do her graduate studies.
But when she came to UVA as a student of a new faculty member named Robert Gilliard, Wentz found that the path to a Ph.D. wasn’t what she expected.
“When I started, I was one of Robert’s first graduate students. Usually, when you join a lab with a well-known or an established professor who's been there for years, you just pick up on a project that a different grad student left off on, and you at least have some idea of what was previously done – what works, what doesn't work – that you can expand on as a starting point for your own Ph.D.” Wentz said. “We had nothing.”
Not only was there no research to use as a starting point, but with the Chemistry Building in the midst of a major renovation, Gilliard and his students had little more than an empty lab.
With Wentz’s help, however, Gilliard and his students put their lab together in short order. As Wentz found a direction for her research, she confronted another unexpected challenge: publications that she was relying on were by an author who had several other papers retracted, so she wasn’t sure what studies could be trusted as a foundation for her work. In addition, several seemingly simple reactions were not working the way they should in the lab.
“It took me about a year and a half before I really started moving things forward,” Wentz said. “There were other people in the group who were getting results, and I wasn’t getting anything. That was kind of a tough spot, figuring out my way through the lab and finding a way to move on with my project.”
But once she got moving, there was no stopping her.
The Chemistry Behind Tomorrow’s Technology
Gilliard’s research involves synthetic chemistry – a branch of chemistry concerned with creating new organic compounds. He focuses on elements like boron that are abundant in nature and that are understudied by chemists but have the potential to play an increasingly important role in the future of technology. He and his students are working to create new molecular compounds that might make industrial processes more energy efficient or reduce their carbon footprint, and they’re working toward synthesizing compounds that could give batteries a longer life or improve how electronics detect, emit and control light.
Wentz’s work, in particular, is focused on elements from a portion of the periodic table called the p block, which are good conductors of heat and electricity. She’s focused on synthesizing new molecules featuring elements like boron and germanium that will enhance the structural and electronic properties of new materials to make them more effective components in the next generation of technological advances like organic light emitting diodes. These types of materials are also used to make computer or cellphone displays that are brighter and more flexible, and they may also help make technology less expensive or more energy efficient.
According to Wentz, there’s still a lot of work to do, but she’s playing an important part in creating a foundation for engineers who will use her research to build new devices.
“I’m working on making fundamental advances, isolating novel molecules and studying them for various materials applications,” Wentz said. “You don't know what something is going to be useful for until you study it, and that sense of discovery is what I enjoy and what makes our chemistry interesting.”
Setting a Higher Bar
Over the last two years, accolades for the work Gilliard and his students have been doing have been pouring in. In 2021, Gilliard won the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award, which recognizes the country’s most promising junior faculty members in science and engineering. That same year, he also received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and a Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering, one of the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships. Chemical and Engineering News also named him one of its “Talented 12” for 2020, an elite group of young scholars who are considered rising stars in the world of chemistry.
Gilliard is quick to give some of the credit for the lab’s success to Wentz. Initially, he hadn’t planned to do research on boron compounds, but now it’s an important part of his team’s work.
“It all started with Kelsie's will and persistence in getting through that initial very difficult period of time, but it took somebody with Kelsie's level of persistence to make these things work,” Gilliard said.
Wentz, however, credits Gilliard and his mentorship for teaching her the importance of resilience in the sciences. As an undergraduate, Wentz was an award-winning student at the top of her class, but when her efforts in graduate school weren’t producing the same results, she considered giving up the project. Gilliard offered her a different perspective.
“Setbacks are just part of the scientific process,” Gilliard explained. “Generally speaking, more reactions will not work, than will work, no matter who you are. “That’s the way chemistry goes, because you have to come up with something new, and oftentimes, it's not going to work. But we learn from those reactions so we can make progress.”
“Robert has been the best mentor I could have asked for,” Wentz said. “He really challenges me instead of just allowing me to get comfortable, and that’s been the motivation I needed to be the best grad student that I could be.”
And Wentz has not only risen to the challenge, she has also been a role model for the department. Raising the bar for graduate students in the sciences, she has served as a leader and mentor to younger students in Gilliard’s lab. She has also published nine papers showcasing compounds she has developed — one of which was published in Angewandte Chemie, the flagship journal of the German Chemical Society — and caught the attention of the international scientific community. She has won a string of awards, including travel awards from the American Chemical Society’s Division of Organic Chemistry and its Women Chemist Committee to present her work at their annual meetings. Other awards include a Teaching Relief Fellowship from the College, a first place in the Department of Chemistry’s 3rd Year Poster Symposium. Most recently, she won the department's Adam Ritchie Outstanding Graduate Student Award this year.
“Kelsie has trained not only undergraduates in the group, but she's helping to train the other graduate students as well. She's a model citizen for the department and an excellent leader,” Gilliard said. “She’s also the hardest worker and most efficient person I've probably ever worked with. She’s incredibly efficient at getting research done and writing up her findings. It can be challenging for students to do both, and she has done both very well.”
After graduation, Wentz will pursue a career in research chemistry. As a first step toward that goal, she recently accepted a postdoctoral position at Johns Hopkins University. Because of the visibility Wentz has earned for herself both at UVA and in the larger scientific community, Gilliard says he was approached by a number of people outside of the University who want to offer her similar opportunities.
“The molecules Kelsie has made are extremely difficult to synthesize and characterize, and her skills are up there with the best in the world,” Gilliard said. “Kelsie is in a unique position because she has worked extremely hard to not only do good science, but also she's been out giving research presentations, and people have gotten to know her outside of the University in a way that doesn’t happen for most graduate students. I know she is going be a superstar. Her future is very bright.”