From MatSE to CEO: Meet alumnus Gerald Wilson
MatSE at Illinois alums do the impossible every day. Meet Gerald Wilson, president and CEO of Autonomic Materials, Inc. in Champaign, Ill., who is an alumnus of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at The Grainger College of Engineering, earning a doctorate in 2007 and a master’s in business administration from the Gies College of Business in 2013. Today Wilson designs protective coating systems for architectural and industrial metal asset protection as well as concrete repair verticals at AMI.
Catch up with Wilson in a Q&A reminiscing his time roaming the halls of the Materials Science and Engineering Building and learning all the incredible things he’s doing since earning a graduate degree in materials science.
Q: What drew you to materials science and engineering?
A: “I was a chemistry major as an undergraduate, and as I was thinking about the kind of career I wanted to have. I reasoned that having experience in multidisciplinary research would give me a great foundation for leading product development, which requires the ability to collaborate with multiple disciplines. Materials science is multidisciplinary, and it allowed me to be able to leverage my chemistry background, so it felt like a great fit.”
Q: What made you choose to study at MatSE at Illinois?
A: “Given its perennial position at the top of just about every materials science program ranking, MatSE at Illinois landed on my radar very early in the process of my research into opportunities for pursuing my graduate studies. I found myself really captivated by the scope of research that was being done in the department, and (I) felt like I could find a home in many of the research groups.
“What sealed the deal for me was the recommendation of a UIUC alum from the chemistry department who had worked with Jeff Moore (U of I professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering and the director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology) and was a teaching postdoctoral fellow at my undergraduate institution at the time. He spoke very highly of UIUC, the chemistry and materials science departments and of the Moore group.
“So, I headed this way hoping to get an opportunity to work with Jeff Moore, and the icing on the cake was being co-advised by Scott White (former U of I professor of aerospace engineering and founder of AMI) and getting to collaborate with Nancy Sottos (department head of MatSE at Illinois), Paul Braun (MatSE at Illinois professor and director of the Materials Research Laboratory) and the rest of the Autonomous Materials Systems group at the Beckman Institute.”
Q: What are some of your fondest memories from your time at MatSE at Illinois?
A: “I have a lot of very fond memories. I had a great group of friends in the AMS group who I’d workout with. We’d lift weights together and then go running at Meadowbrook Park, stopping to do pushups occasionally while running. I’m not much of a long-distance runner so the latter activity wasn’t my favorite, but it was a great group of guys and we had a lot of fun together.
“Jeff (Moore) and the AMS group also hosted Barry Sharpless (an American Chemist and a 2001 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry) when I was a student in the department and that was a lot of fun. Meeting him made a big impression on me.”
Q: What research did you conduct during your time at Illinois?
A: “I worked primarily on developing new chemistries for imparting self-healing functionality into polymeric materials. I started by characterizing the result of adding Grubbs catalyst directly into an amine-cured bisphenol A epoxy resin, which resulted in the formation of a new ruthenium complex.
“We (then) characterized and used our results to explain the deactivation of the catalyst. I then evaluated newer derivatives of Grubbs’ catalyst and norbornene derivatives to design new chemistries with improved self-healing performance. Finally, I started work that would eventually lead to the demonstration of self-healing functionality based on free radical polymerization in dental resins and orthopedic cements.”
Q: What kind of innovative research are you working on now at AMI?
A: “I’m fortunate to continue to build on my graduate work at AMI. At AMI, we are leveraging self-healing functionality to design protective coating systems that eliminate traditional tradeoffs between high-performance corrosion protection and eco-friendliness. We’ve developed and launched coating products for a range of industrial and architectural metal asset protection and concrete repair verticals.”
Q: How did your time at MatSE at Illinois prepare you for your career?
A: “The multidisciplinary nature of materials science and being part of (a) large research group that was also multidisciplinary prepared me for the kind of broad collaboration and rapid innovation essential in a startup."
Q: What advice do you have for current MatSE at Illinois students?
A: “Your coursework is important and being in materials science helps with the preparation needed to launch a career. However, I would encourage current students to take advantage of opportunities that would help them develop the uniquely human skills that are essential for career development.
“Take advantage of opportunities to meet/collaborate with others in the college of business or law, for example, through the action learning opportunities now available. The skills and the network you develop in the process will serve you well as your career progresses.”
Q: What makes materials science the coolest major?
A: “Its utility. You can take a background in materials science and engineering in a lot of different career directions.”
Q: What do you cherish most about your time at the U of I?
A: “(The) U of I and Champaign-Urbana will always have a special place in my heart. As a student, I felt like I could do anything because of the resources that were available to me. I also value the relationships I built with my colleagues and mentors which continue to this day. I also met my wife while I was at U of I, so as far as things to cherish, that’s at the very top of the list!”