Headshots of Gilliard and Queen

College of Science chemistry graduates Robert J. Gilliard Jr. and Wendy Lee Queen were recognized as national-caliber scientists.

CLEMSON, S.C. – Not one but two Clemson University College of Science graduates have been named to Chemical & Engineering News’ prestigious Talented 12 Class of 2020, which honors a dozen rising stars who “are solving some of science’s toughest problems.”

Among the 12 C&EN honorees are Robert J. Gilliard Jr., a Clemson graduate who is currently an assistant professor and director of undergraduate research in the University of Virginia’s department of chemistry; and fellow Clemson grad Wendy Lee Queen, who is an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland) in the Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering.

At Virginia, Gilliard currently leads a research team of 14 and directs a synthesis-based research program focused on inorganic chemistry and materials research.

In the Talented 12 article about Gilliard, C&EN described him as a scientist who “jostles the impossible in a myriad of ways, such as using main-group alternatives for traditional transition-metal catalysts, which tend to be pricey and toxic.”

Gilliard in his lab

Robert Gilliard currently leads a research team of 14 and directs a synthesis-based research program at the University of Virginia.
Image Credit: Gilliard Research Laboratory

Gilliard started out as an engineering major at Clemson. However, while chemistry wasn’t Gilliard’s first interest, he said he was successful in his chemistry classes and became intrigued by the opportunity to do research in the chemistry department as an undergraduate. After earning his Bachelor of Science in chemistry at Clemson, Gilliard went to the University of Georgia, where he earned his Ph.D. under the mentorship of former Clemson faculty member Greg Robinson.

“After hearing from friends about undergraduate research at Clemson, I built up the courage to knock on the door of Professor Rhett Smith and ask him if I would be able to join his research lab,” said Gilliard, who hails from Hartsville, S.C. “He said I would be the last one for that semester because he had already agreed to accept a large number of students.

“Professor Smith turned out to be an excellent mentor, and the research training I received in the Smith group at Clemson is the reason I was so excited to continue my education,” Gilliard added. “I started graduate school with years of experience in air-sensitive chemistry, several publications, and an appreciation for both organic and inorganic chemistry.”

Smith said it was obvious from the beginning that Gilliard is a “generational talent.”

“He is an exceptionally hard-working and insightful chemist,” said Smith, a professor in the College of Science’s department of chemistry. “During his time in my research group, he presented at many international conferences and was a co-author on several scientific journal articles.”

Like Gilliard, Queen did not begin her collegiate career focused on chemistry.

“Growing up, I was always drawn more toward things like creative writing,” said Queen, who hails from Seneca, S.C. “However, once I started college, I was far from certain of what I wanted to do. I guess I kind of felt like the sky was the limit, and that made it difficult for me to choose a major.”

C&EN described Queen as having “staked her claim on the vast frontier offered by metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). By filling this landscape with polymers, Queen makes composites that can capture all manner of molecules with the goal of cleaning up air and water and extracting valuable metals like gold from waste streams.”

Wendy Lee Queen in her lab

Wendy Lee Queen is an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland).
Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Bertrand Rey

Unlike Gilliard, Queen came to Clemson as a graduate student, receiving her Bachelor of Science in chemistry at Lander University and her Ph.D. at Clemson. Queen said she will always be appreciative of the “professional support and grooming” from her Ph.D. advisor Shiou-Jyh Hwu.

“In the end,” she said, “I chose to study solid-state inorganic chemistry because the enthusiasm that Dr. Hwu expressed for his research was contagious.”

For his part, Hwu said he was fortunate to be able to contribute to Queen’s educational pursuits.

“Wendy was recognized as a self-motivated student and an overachiever by her peers and faculty,” said Hwu, a professor in the chemistry department. “She impressed us with her exceptional scholarship, for which she was twice a recipient of the Outstanding Graduate Research Award and once of the Departmental Research Incentive Award at Clemson.”

William Pennington, chair of the chemistry department, said the dual honor was proof of Clemson’s ability to perform on a world stage with the best of academia.

“I think it’s a validation of the quality of the program here at Clemson – we put out great people,” he said. “We might not be as well-known for science as some of the bigger schools, but we can compete, and these honors say we’re doing a great job.”

The Talented 12 program is in its sixth year and was created by C&EN magazine to recognize extraordinary young researchers who are inspiring the next generation of chemists.