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A Conversation With Eric Tillman

In 2015, Eric Tillman joined the Santa Clara University faculty from Bucknell University.  Raised and educated in southern California (Tillman attended Cal Poly as an undergraduate and USC’s Chemistry Ph.D. program), Tillman returned to California after 13 years on the east coast.  At Santa Clara, Tillman was appointed as the Fletcher Jones endowed professor.  He has served as the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry since September, 2016. 

Tillman recently sat for a conversation that explored his reasons for joining Santa Clara, his enthusiasm for his new department and colleagues, the possibilities of a new STEM facility, and his current scholarship with a research team that includes several SCU undergraduate students.

CAS: I’m curious about how you’ve settled in at Santa Clara.

Tillman: It’s been quite a learning curve in terms of coming in and seeing how the department runs, seeing how the curriculum runs.  The sequence of courses here is different than at Bucknell. There, [the undergraduates] start with organic. Here we start with general chemistry, and organic is the sophomore year. The students here are very good. After getting used to the pace of the quarter [system] and what not, it has gone very well.  I got students in the lab pretty quickly. It was just after Christmas last year that I got two students in the lab and I got everything up and running. By summertime, I already had four students who were really good.  They already had some training, so we were able to hit the ground running.

CAS: How does Santa Clara differ from Bucknell? Were you able to work with graduate students at Bucknell?

Tillman: Yes, there was a Master’s program, but [most of] those students wanted to get a little bit more chemistry before going on into industry. Many of top research students at Bucknell were undergraduates. Many of the top undergraduate students were going onto the top Ph.D. programs, just like the Santa Clara students.

CAS: What drew you to Santa Clara?

Tillman:  I received a letter. I found out later that [I was invited to apply] because of the Henry Dreyfus [Teacher Scholar] award that I received a few years back. (Ed: Tillman was a Dreyfus scholar from 2009 to 2014.) I looked into SCU and looked into the area. The department really looked to be on the upswing. Some of the hires that they’ve done over the last seven or eight years have now really started to come into their own as researchers.  I didn’t want to leave Bucknell, a place where I was very productive in terms of the teacher-scholar model, to go to a place that really didn’t have that.  But when I got here, it appeared SCU could offer [that teacher scholar model].  And they have.


Faculty Researchers and Recent Grants


CAS: As I look through your cohort of faculty, I see you have a cadre of young scholars who seem to be hitting on all cylinders.  Is that a fair assessment?

Tillman: Yes, I would say so. For instance, look at Korin [Wheeler] and Amelia [Fuller]. They both earned tenure a few years back, [which indicates] you have established yourself as a productive scholar. They both hit upon pretty substantial grants from NSF (National Science Foundation) and NIH (National Institute of Health).  That speaks to the work they’ve done and that they’re recognized as being very meaningful to the field, high impact to the field, and they were able to do [that research] with undergraduates. Those types of awards that they have secured are competitive. You have to be able to show not only that you have a good idea and the ability to complete the research [but also] to show that you will be productive.

Then we have Grace [Stokes] and Paul [Abbyad], who are untenured.  Both are cranking out stuff. They both had a few publications this year with students. They are both writing grants that, because of what they’re doing now, will eventually hit. You just have to write for the grants and hope for the best, get feedback and keep publishing. [To be competitive for the grants] you have to be productive and eventually you will hit. 

I think too, when you get some success [as a researcher], that is not just localized to that person. It spreads the word to the whole chemical community that Santa Clara is doing some nice work. Other colleagues in the department are doing good work, too.  There is really the groundwork for doing the research that makes everybody more likely to succeed.

CAS: And you have a big grant recently.

Tillman: I have a PRF (Petroleum Research Fund) grant this year.  My colleague, Pat Hoggard, who was the Fletcher Jones chair [before me] and is going into phased retirement, just got a PRF Grant as well, so that speaks to his ability to have stayed active for so long and to still have good ideas. He still has his lab space in Daly Science.

CAS: What about your associate professors?

Tillman: Actually, one of the things that I was pleasantly surprised by at Santa Clara is that everyone in the department takes students.  For example, this year, 2016, the department had 10 publications from seven different research groups.  That was pretty good representation. It was spread out pretty well. Even the people who have not had more recent grant successes are getting people into the research labs, and oftentimes those students are going on to very good PhD programs.  One thing that I really liked about the department is that everyone is very supportive of scholarship and recognizes that everyone needs to do it.  We need to keep it active and giving these opportunities to our students.

And teaching, which is tied to research, if you look at our department the teaching level is very high, more so than I have seen other chemistry departments. It’s pretty amazing when you look at it from the student perspective or from a colleague perspective. Everyone is doing such a good job in the teaching chemistry, and I think that carries over to research. Even if someone is not competitive for grants at this point they are still offering high-quality research to the students. We have around 35 students at any given time who are doing research, which is a pretty good amount for department our size.

CAS:  So, at a school like Santa Clara, you can realistically involve how many undergrads in your research?

Tillman: I have seven right now. During the academic year, you can get it a little larger because the students work at different times. They are not all in the lab at once. You can probably accommodate in my lab probably four students at a time, simultaneously working.  It really depends on what type of research you are doing. If you are synthetic, which is the type of research we do, where you are using a hood a lot, you are setting up reactions. You are analyzing things, and it takes a little bit more space. People are moving around a lot. While if you were working for a group that was doing more computational [chemistry], you don’t need as much space.

In the summer, I have four students, which is probably about the most you can do a good job mentoring, and the amount of space that we have. Four is probably about the sweet spot. As I said, during the academic year, you can do boost that up a little bit because they come and go. A common way to do it during the academic year is for students to work two afternoons, or two mornings a week. They get up to six to nine hours of research a week. You allow them some flexibility for their schedule. This is just how it works in chemistry. If they’re going to run a reaction it will take as long as it’s going to take. You can run it, stop it, and next time analyze the results.

We also do research group meetings. Most of us have some type of research group meetings throughout the quarter.  In the summer, we do too, but during the quarter it’s nice to get everybody together. And usually you will have a student or two lead the research meeting: What are you working on? What are you going next? What are some of your results? Just to get everybody thinking about everybody else’s projects—that keeps the whole research team involved. It also allows the person who is presenting it to experience explaining their research to others and keep them motivated.  “I’ve got to keep working on this. I got to keep moving forward.” You try to make it comfortable but you are also wanting to make them accountable. They don’t want to go up there and not be doing anything. You don’t want that.

CAS: Would you say that most students who are active in research with faculty are going to move on to PhD programs?

Tillman: I wouldn’t say most. I would say it’s about a third [of the students]. A lot of them are pre-health.  That is really the reality of students who are really strong in the classroom: They’re going to want to go on to medical school. That is still pretty common, so the research definitely helps them for that.

To some extent, you want to do two things with your research group. You want to be able to offer work to students who want to go to grad school, and you want to recruit some of the very best students come through the curriculum into your research lab.  They may not know yet that they love research and if they want to do research and the PhD program. They will come in and say they want to go to medical school or dental school, and then they get into a decent lab and they just really love that. They kind of change course.

I have had students over the years who have done combination Ph.D. and MD programs because they like to research so much but they still want to do the medical school thing. [Such programs are] nice because for medical school you have to pay for that, but for Ph.D. program you don’t, so they would get that full ride.  Such programs aren’t common, and they’re obviously very competitive [for admission].


Future of STEM Research at SCU


CAS: What do you think of the possibilities for the department as it anticipates moving into a new STEM facility, or moving to a STEM model?

Tillman: Well, [the current plan] is going to increase our research space by almost 80% or 90%.  The research space per faculty member will almost double. To some extent you are limited by your facility. Even if you have a really highly active faculty member who has external money, who has students who really want to do research, you really can’t take more than you can safely put in your lab and still be productive.   I think having an extra space will take away that ceiling, which will just allow us to do the most we are able and willing to do in terms of getting more students into the research space.


Tillman's Research


CAS: What are you working on right now?

Tillman:  Right now, I have a few different projects that [the research team is] working on. Most of our projects are studying the fundamental organic chemistry reactions on non-polymer chains.   One of the new lines we are excited about is trying to do these reactions at room temperature.  For a lot of chemistry reactions, you have to heat them up to go. We are trying to do them at room temperature using light.  We are using light and a light-sensitized molecule that absorbs the light, gets into an excited state, and then that is going to do the chemistry that we need it to do to get the polymer to grow, to get the polymer to do these reactions after the polymer is made. We change the shape of the polymers from these straight chains into these cyclic polymers.  If we can get away with doing this with just light, it is much more advantageous than having to put a lot of metal catalysts in there and use heat. 

Typically, the two ways that people do our chemistry is using a metal catalyst, which is not environmentally friendly and must be removed.  We are working with a colleague at the University of Colorado now who is making these photocatalysts and sending them out to us.  Two of my students right now, Ching Pan and Jessica Wu, who are both juniors, are trying to do these reactions right now.  One of them is more interested in trying to use the chemistry to make polymers. The other is more interested in once we have the polymer can we use this to manipulate the shape of the polymer.  We have been able to make some types of polymers with it. We know that it works.  Just as recently as last week, Ching has used this to do reactions on polymers, but it is not going as well as the work we have done where we have used temperature and additional catalysts.  We wouldn’t expect it to at this point but we are showing that it can work. What we are going to do now is use a more active photocatalyst that our collaborator at the University of Colorado has recently made. He is going to send those out to us and we’ll incorporate that into our systems.

Another thing that we are trying to do is in this paper we just published in the journal, Macromolecules. We showed that we can accelerate the rate of the reaction by changing the mixture of solvents. One of the questions that comes up is as we are changing these solvent mixtures, this reaction we are following is happening faster, but is the product composition changing as a result of the solvent. Our model has them holding together with a small molecule holding them apart. There is a chance that as we are changing the solvent at different parts of the reaction, maybe that little molecule is in there, maybe it’s not.  It’s hard to tell. We are going to do is this mass analysis where we can really see those have that small molecule, and those that don’t have that small molecule.

CAS:  So how would such research be applied?

Tillman: The cyclic polymers have shown promise in drug delivery. Part of drug delivery is that when you put a polymer into you, that is going to have a drug associated with it. It needs to have a circulation time that is adequate to accumulate in a tumor cell but also is small enough that it can be pushed out through the body.  Cyclic polymers have a longer circulation time than a linear polymer that is exactly the same size. You can imagine that if you have an open chain that has these open ends on it, it can wiggle its way through things, whereas a cyclic polymer would have to deform a lot. It can still go out but it would exist longer in the body.

We have a couple of patents on how to make cyclic polymers [but] there is actually no direct commercial application yet. Part of the reason is they are really hard to make. But if I can bypass all the purification stuff - just making the polymer [and] cyclizing it, and use as little metal as possible - it could help commercialize something. 

CAS: Santa Clara says it is a comprehensive university, committed to the teacher-scholar model. It says it is not an R-1 (Ed: a research university like the University of California).  With all this research coming out of our departments every day, are we trying to become a baby R-1?

Tillman: No, there is still a huge difference [between a research university and a school like Santa Clara]. The big difference is the undergraduates. They are the drivers of this research.   When we just did our paper this summer, the undergraduates made their figures and collected the data.  They can’t write up [the analysis] yet, but they can write the experimental part. But they are involved in the writing because we give that [responsibility] to them.   They’re helping you get the references, they are giving feedback on it. The point is that they are learning so much about getting in the lab [and] to do the research…We talk to them about why they are doing that? How does this fit into the bigger picture?

At Santa Clara, we can still publish in those high-end journals. Here, we can do this good work with undergraduates, get published in respected journals in the field, and get them involved in this process. I think this is the best-case scenario for a school like Santa Clara. I also think it is realistic in terms of the teaching load that we have at Santa Clara, the quality students we have, and the other commitments that we have.  We can’t do what they do at a R-1, but the [R-1] can’t do what we do at Santa Clara.