Meet Assistant Professor Kerry Gilmore, an organic chemist who strives to gather and share reproducible data through automated, multi-step flow chemistry systems.
Growing up in an oceanside Cape Cod town, a young Kerry Gilmore first went to college to study marine biology. However, upon taking a chemistry course during his sophomore year at Roger Williams University, Gilmore realized that chemistry was his true passion. “The more that I did chemistry, the more I loved it,” Gilmore says. “It was more complex and involved more of these layered problems you needed to figure out, and that was just really attractive to me.” That same year, Gilmore became involved in undergraduate research, studying organic synthesis and biology. Gilmore ultimately switched majors and graduated with a dual degree in chemistry and biology.
While at Roger Williams University, Gilmore had the opportunity to meet with a seminar speaker who convinced him to pursue a graduate degree at Florida State University. While at Florida State University, Gilmore’s graduate research focused on mechanistic organic chemistry, with a particular interest in cyclization reactions and determining the factors that allow researchers to control the formation of rings of various sizes.
As a graduate student, Gilmore received a Fulbright Scholarship, allowing him to work at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR, or National Research Council) in Bologna, Italy. There, he spent ten months conducting cutting-edge research and exploring Italy, when possible.
Upon graduation, Gilmore wanted to expand on his research and learn new techniques. In search of postdoctoral opportunities, Gilmore was recruited to join the Biomolecular Systems Department at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Germany. As a postdoctoral fellow there, Gilmore’s work sought to advance the methods of synthesizing anti-malarial medication and small molecules in general. Gilmore then became the leader of the flow chemistry group in the department, continuing to advance mechanistic and synthetic understandings during his six-year term. Gilmore reflects, “I had fantastic colleagues there and researchers. The infrastructure is great. We were able to do some really fun things.”
Coming to UConn
After eight years at the Max Planck Institute near Berlin, Germany, Gilmore and family came to UConn seeking outstanding research opportunities and a return to the rural life that they had been accustomed to. Gilmore explains:
What is amazing to me and what sold me immediately even before I could meet a lot of the colleagues here — with whom I am very impressed and happy to be a part of — is that you can have a top university, where I can do whatever research I could ever dream up, and then walk for two minutes off-campus and be in deep rural New England. Rolling hills, stone walls, creeks, and hiking. It’s such a unique place here. Very often, if you want to go to a high-level university, you are in a very urbanized setting. So, to be able to have all this in a place like Storrs is absolutely phenomenal.
Gilmore notes that it was also the atmosphere created by faculty and staff that convinced him to join the UConn Department of Chemistry. “To be in a place that is as supportive as this, with the infrastructure of both people and facilities, is a beautiful thing that I’m lucky to be in and to hopefully stay at,” Gilmore reflects.
Gilmore also points to an unexpected connection that aligned UConn with his early research: Professor Emeritus Bill Bailey. Gilmore’s Ph.D. thesis explored — in part — how Bailey’s research had refuted the long-accepted Baldwin Rules that defined ring closure onto the alkynes. “It led to the realization that we need to rewrite the textbooks and change how we think about it,” Gilmore says. “When applying and meeting with the Department and with Bill, it was fantastic to kind of come full circle.”
As many chemists grappled to adapt their research protocols in light of COVID-19, the methodologies previously established by Gilmore easily translated into this new and changing world. Using automation and remote accessibility, “Our goal is to continuously identify and address challenging gaps in the literature and to pursue projects that do not have a clear path at the onset,” Gilmore explains.
The Gilmore Research Group will use technology to better understand organic chemistry and syntheses in general. Specifically, techniques will focus on gathering reproducible data through multi-step flow chemistry systems.
Unlike typical flow chemistry, Gilmore’s multi-step system does not require manual manipulations between steps, such as switching out different pieces of equipment or creating new processes. Gilmore likens his setup to a bicycle wheel: chemicals travel from the system’s perimeter to a “central switching station,” then move outward toward a chosen process (a heated reaction, a cold reaction, a light reaction, etc.). After the reaction takes place, the product can then be collected, saved for later, or exposed to another reaction.
“We’ve designed it in such a way that we can access any conditions that we want in any order that we want as many times as we may need them,” Gilmore details. “That allows us to quickly and easily run lots of different reactions without actually having to manually reconfigure the setup. As long as you then have access to chemicals, you can do whatever you need. And the system is fully automated.”
Gilmore’s multi-step system allows for greater variability and control than the typical “assembly line” approach in traditional flow chemistry:
We run these reactions that are still sequential, but not simultaneous. We’ve decoupled these processes. … Overall, it’s the same type of conditions and the same type of experience that a continuous process would have, but now we can vary conditions in between. If you want to change the speed of a step, we can do that because these are functionally isolated events. In a traditional system, the process speeds up with each step, which is a challenge. But with this instrument, you don’t have that limitation. We really have full control over anything that we want to do.
Because Gilmore’s research relies on instrumentation versus manual processes, human error is reduced and data can be more successfully reproduced. Also, advanced instrumentation allows for automation, increasing the productivity of the actual chemist.
“We spend a decade — at least — training scientists in how to think, how to be creative, how to come up with ideas, research, and solve these complex problems,” Gilmore says. “Researchers should have the time to utilize that intelligence and creativity that we select for and we help to nurture throughout this process as opposed to relying on — and spending the majority of their time practicing — a set of physical skills.”
With more time devoted to creativity and analytical thinking, Gilmore imagines that greater efficiencies can be made to processes such as pharmaceutical development. However, Gilmore is most excited by possibilities that are currently unknown: “The fun part of research is asking, ‘What can we do with this that nobody else can do?’, because this is where we can develop new ideas and chemistry that opens the door to completely new areas.”
With the aid of his unique instrumentation, Gilmore emphasizes remote accessibility as a cornerstone of his research strategy. “We can then perform chemistry and get data out of it without being there physically doing it, which is exciting for a number of reasons,” Gilmore describes. “Instead of a chemistry lab, it’s more akin to a server farm where people login, run their chemistry, and get the data out of it in a fully reproducible manner. All of that data then is freely accessible to everybody. You get much more efficient use of time and equipment and it breaks down barriers for the greater community.”
Gilmore imagines opening this data and system to students, collaborators, and researchers around the world. Because reactions can be conducted remotely, users could log in from their home — wherever that may be — without physically needing to be in a lab: “It then opens up opportunities for a much greater community than I can fit in my lab.”
Although open data presents some intellectual property concerns, Gilmore believes that these can be easily overcome by with the proper protocols and safeguards in place. Gilmore contends, “If you’re truly being creative and you’re doing really cool things, people should then want to be involved in this, and the more people you can involve, the better.”
Building a Research Group
Dr. Kerry Gilmore is eager to form his own research group at UConn. Although starting a new role in the middle of a pandemic has presented some challenges, Gilmore is excited to build up his new laboratory, interact with colleagues, mentor students, and dive into research.
“I really love mentoring itself. I love running a research group,” Gilmore reflects. “Seeing and helping to facilitate the growth of students over the years to achieve their goals … to be able to take the lessons I’ve learned and try to help them to grow as researchers– I really like being able to see that transformation.”
Gilmore is currently recruiting students and postdoctoral fellows to begin work in early-2021. Gilmore is seeking researchers with a diverse skillset to support his group’s ambitious goals: “Students that are interested in organic chemistry; chemical engineering students interested in automation or instrument development; and data sciences students interested in software development, machine learning, and databases.”
“The more diverse you can make a research group, the better, in my opinion, because everyone approaches problems differently as they have different expertise. We also all have gaps in what we’re good at, and thankfully a team’s gaps are different,” Gilmore explains. “When you bring together people from diverse areas, you can really tackle bigger problems than you could with a lot of people working individually on things. And I’d much rather go after bigger problems than small, easy problems.”
By: Ashley Orcutt, UConn Department of Chemistry