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Alumnus Robert Gilliard, chemistry groundbreaker

Alan Flurry

“The thing about synthetic chemistry that I really love,” said Robert Gilliard, who earned his doctorate from the University of Georgia in 2014, “is being able to make molecules that the world has never seen before. When you develop new fundamental chemistry, you inevitably discover significant properties you never could have predicted.”

Gilliard, who is currently assistant professor at the University of Virginia, first became known for his work at UGA on the silvery-white metal beryllium, which is used in alloys to increase the electrical conductivity of copper or nickel.

“Beryllium is the fourth element in the periodic table,” explained Henry Schaefer, director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at UGA, and a person Gilliard considers an inspiring mentor. “Beryllium is dangerous, potentially cancerous, and its chemistry is not well known.” At UGA, and more recently at the University of Virginia, Gilliard and his colleagues were able to create a stable form of beryllium that can also carry out completely novel chemistry, and has been hailed as a remarkable achievement.  The new version of beryllium might, for instance, be utilized to help speed reactions in semiconductors. As Schaefer concluded: “Robert has great insight into the possibility of entirely new chemistry of broad interest, and then he goes into the lab and actually makes it.”

Not surprisingly, Gilliard has amassed an astonishing number of awards, grants and honors at a young age. He still remembers his surprise when he was named a Forbes ’30 under 30’ in 2016.

“It was a complete shock,” said Gilliard. “I was working in what is known as the glovebox in my laboratory, where we run our chemical reactions. I kept hearing my phone go off at my desk outside, chime after chime after chime, so I finally went to look. And there were emails from around the world congratulating me about this honor I didn’t yet know I’d received.”

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Wonderful to see Dr. Gilliard back in the news. Here's our 2014 news feature on his Merck Foundation Fellowship, from his doctoral student days.


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