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Welcome Dr. Eric Tillman, Fletcher Jones Professor

Dr. Eric Tillman joined us in the fall as a Fletcher Jones Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry. He began his academic career at Bucknell University, where he maintained an active research group involving undergraduate and master’s students. During his 13 years at Bucknell, he regularly taught organic chemistry, polymer chemistry, and physical organic chemistry.

Tillman was born in La Jolla, CA, went to Cal Poly SLO as an undergraduate, and earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Southern California in 2001. As a graduate student, Tillman was trained in polymer and organic chemistry by Thieo Hogen-Esch and focused his research on reactions of polymer anions. From USC, he went to Caltech to be a postdoc in Nate Lewis’ group. There, he studied chemical sensor arrays, which relied on polymer films as the sensing component in vapor detecting devices. He then joined the faculty at Bucknell as an assistant professor, was tenured in 2008, and eventually was promoted to full professor in 2012.

Dr. Tillman admits that he wasn’t on the job market and was happy at Bucknell when he received a letter alerting him to the position at Santa Clara. Bucknell was the only academic home he had known, and he had put together a productive research lab that took many years of fine-tuning to get right. Despite the cold winters spent shoveling snow and general lack of most things you would take for granted in Silicon Valley, he and his family had slowly adjusted to life in rural Pennsylvania.  After becoming aware of the position opening at Santa Clara, he did some research to learn as much as he could about the department here. Learning what he could before coming to the campus, Dr. Tillman was impressed with the current faculty’s research projects and noted that the hires made over the last several years boded well for the department in the long term. It looked like the department supported the balance of teaching and research that he was looking for, and he couldn’t help but be excited about the University’s proposed “STEM complex.” While this all sounded wonderful to him – truth be told – he was also drawn to the possibility of returning to his home state of California.

On his visit to the Santa Clara campus, he had a chance to meet the faculty and many of the students doing research in the department. Dr. Tillman had a great time talking to all the professors, and he really felt like he connected with many both personally and professionally. “I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout of students at both of my talks (yes, they made me give two talks) and I noticed the amount of activity going on when I peered into the faculty research labs during the afternoon hours,” Tillman reflected.  By the end of the two-day marathon interview, he left with a feeling that the department would be a great fit for him, and the faculty and staff would make great group of colleagues. “In addition to being impressed by the department, I thought the campus and the area were beautiful and, despite ridiculous real estate prices, San Jose seemed like a great city to live,” he added.

Now, with only one full quarter at Santa Clara behind him, Tillman is very happy with his decision to come here. He enjoys his time with the great group of students he is teaching in Organic Chemistry, and is delighted by the number of students eager to get into the research lab. “Getting my lab set up again certainly was a challenge, but I already have student researchers helping me out and I’m optimistic my research group will quickly be back in full swing,” he enthuses.

The focus of Tillman’s research is in polymer and organic synthesis. Together with his students, he uses controlled polymerization methods to make polymer chains with reactive chain ends, which allow the polymers to undergo further reactions. For example, an area of interest in his group is devising a sequence to convert linear polymer chains into cyclic polymers by joining the polymer chain ends. Cyclic polymers have been of interest to chemists for decades, yet are notoriously difficult to make. To have success in an elaborate sequence leading to architecturally interesting large polymers, he and his students first carry out model reactions that allow them to gauge the success of each reaction step. This helps students gain experience performing technically easier experiments, while teaching them the skills needed to eventually carry out more complex polymerizations and reactions at polymer chain ends. This work in cyclic polymers has led to two patents and seven papers, all with student coauthors.

In total, his research group has had over 50 students in the lab and produced 29 papers, all with student coauthors. Dr. Tillman’s research is currently supported by grants from NSF and Petroleum Research Fund. His SCU research lab is in Alumni Science 162, with two students already in his group and two more joining in the spring quarter.