Jillian Dempsey

Jillian Dempsey is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. Her research focuses on understanding how to harness the sun’s energy to create clean fuel.

a woman wearing a tan suit stands in a labphoto by Peggy Mullin
April 18th, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Describe your research in five words.

“Stockpiling sunlight to create fuel.”

When I was very young, I wanted to open a TCBY franchise with my dad. In high school, I fell in love with science. So I shifted career aspirations — I wanted to work at a pharmaceutical company, like Ciba-Geigy, which had a large facility in my hometown of Summit, New Jersey.

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

It was the beautiful simplicity of explaining the physical properties of molecules like O2 by understanding their electronic structure that drew me to the field. When I was studying chemistry in high school, we learned about molecular orbital theory, which can be used to understand chemical bonding in molecules. We derived the molecular orbitals for dioxygen (O2), and revealed that two of the electrons are unpaired. No previous theory of chemical bonding could explain why, despite having an even number of electrons, oxygen is paramagnetic.

a husband and wife hold their one-year-old son

Dempsey and her husband Alex Miller, also a UNC chemist, recently celebrated their son Orin’s first birthday.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

I think failure is what engenders creativity in science. When trying to solve a problem, I tend to go for the most obvious and straightforward solution first. These approaches are familiar, and usually tried-and-true, but for the most challenging problems, they usually don’t work! When they fail, I’m forced to think of a more unprecedented approach, and these avenues are the ones that lead to advances.

What are your passions outside of science?

I love trail running and yoga — I think my most creative moments arrive after I’ve spent time clearing my head completely when out in the woods or on the mat.

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