'Full of Surprises': Armstrong chemistry professor inspires students, earns $50,000 research grant

Wearing his signature cabbie hat, assistant Chemistry professor Dr. Brandon Quillian strolls through the halls of Armstrong's Science Center, chatting with students as he moves from the laboratory to the classroom. This popular professor is easily recognized by his fashionable headgear, but his path in academia is, in fact, defined by an inspiring personal journey.

Dr. Quillian is the only person in his family to earn a Bachelor's degree. His mother died when he was only six. Without direction and guidance, many his siblings eventually dropped out of high school in their hometown of Cornelia, Ga.

“I was determined to get a college degree in memory of my mother, so my mother's influence wasn't in vain,” he explains.

Dr. Quillian developed his passion for chemistry as an Armstrong undergraduate.

“I had always been interested in chemistry as a kid,” he recalls. “It really grew on me in high school. When I got to Armstrong, I realized chemistry was a natural fit for me.”

After graduating from Armstrong, he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Georgia, where he published more than 16 high-impact peer reviewed articles and was awarded several competitive awards including the 2007-2008 Northeast Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society Graduate Student of the Year Award. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia as a Ford Foundation Fellow and decided to return to his alma mater to teach full-time in 2011.

Today, Dr. Quillian is a popular professor who specializes in organic chemistry and organometallic chemistry. However, his favorite part of working at Armstrong is collaborating with students in the classroom and in the laboratory.

“When students get in the lab, it inspires them to learn more about chemistry,” he says. “It really brings chemistry to life.”

He is currently mentoring a number of undergraduate students with an interest in science. For Darien Harper, a Chemistry major at Armstrong, Dr. Quillian serves as a professional and personal inspiration.

“I enjoy how Dr. Quillian teaches complex examples and backs the work with understandable methods,” Darien says. “He motivates me to think on my feet. I have learned a number of powerful lessons from Dr. Quillian, ranging from how to approach organometallic chemistry to how to succeed in college.”

Dr. Quillian is acutely aware of the fact that African-American students are underrepresented in the sciences. He knows first-hand what it feels like when students make fun of kids with an interest in math and science and who excel academically.

“My best advice is not to listen to the naysayers,” he says. “Be who you are and don't let peer pressure change you in any fashion.”

That advice has certainly taken Dr. Quillian far in his professional career, as he was recently awarded a prestigious American Chemical Society research grant. This Armstrong professor was one of only 45 American Chemical Society-Petroleum Research Fund grant recipients in the nation for 2013. The American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund Advisory Board awarded him a $50,000 competitive grant for innovative research to develop a “greener” way to help convert petroleum resources to polystyrene, popularly known as Styrofoam®.

This talented chemist's latest research connects with his ongoing passion for experimentation, exploration and discovery.

“I love the fact that you can always make new discoveries in the lab and find tangential outcomes that are often more impressive than what you originally set out to do,” he explains. “Chemistry, like life, is full of surprises.”