Distinguished Researcher Award: Robert Klie, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences 

A man posses for a photo
Robert Klie outside his lab (Photo: Martin Hernandez/University of Illinois Chicago)

As an undergraduate, Robert Klie wanted to be an astrophysicist, studying cosmic objects with the world’s most powerful telescopes. But he soon became fascinated with the galaxies closer to home: the atomic particles that make up the world around us. 

Later, as a graduate student, Klie noticed UIC was opening windows into this once-invisible world. With advanced microscope technology, scientists could examine matter at a previously unseen level of detail. 

“Back in 1998, UIC was the first institution to show that we can reach atomic resolution in a conventional electron microscope. This wasn’t previously thought possible,” said Klie, department head and professor of physics at UIC. “That’s what excited me to come here as a young faculty member: to really see atoms — the fundamental building blocks of material — and how they move and respond.” 

Since joining the department in 2006, Klie has built on those pioneering advances to make UIC one of the world’s leading hubs for electron microscopy, drawing researchers from across the United States and dozens of countries. Through his research on new materials that hold promise for computing, energy and medicine and through his leadership of UIC’s electron microscopy core facilities, Klie has put the university at the center of nanoscale physics. 

“We showed that we can house advanced instrumentation in downtown Chicago; that we can really build a user base to publish important papers and results; and educate students that are now postdocs, faculty and staff scientists in academia, industry and national labs,” he said. 

The university’s reputation in this field will only expand later this year, when a new electron microscope the first of its kind in the United States, arrives at UIC. The instrument will allow researchers to study samples without a magnetic field, which promises to open new frontiers in superconductor design and electrochemistry.   

Klie is also building collaborations at the campus through the pilot Institute for Functional and Regenerative Materials, co-founded with Eben Alsberg of Biomedical Engineering and Luisa DiPietro of the College of Dentistry. In one early project, they’re looking at the molecular structure of tooth enamel to design new, more effective formulations of mouthwash. 

Throughout these studies, Klie hopes that the ability to see and better understand the hidden world of atoms will inspire the next generation of scientists like him.  

“We have impacted a large number of undergraduate and graduate students’ lives by showing them the power that microscopy can have on their curiosity and their career in academia and science,” Klie said. 

Read about other recipients of the 2023 Researcher, Scholar and Inventor of the Year awards this week on UIC today, with new profiles posted each day. On April 22, you’ll find coverage on UIC today from the awards ceremony. 

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