Science & Technology

USU Mourns the Passing of Renowned Chemist Alexander Boldyrev

The Inaugural R. Gaurth Hansen Professor was a revered researcher, teacher and mentor.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU chemist Alexander Boldyrev, an AAAS Fellow and Utah State's inaugural R. Gaurth Hansen Professor, died Aug. 26, 2023, at age 71. Boldyrev, who joined USU in 1999, was a revered researcher, teacher and mentor. (Photo Credit: Anastasiia Tkachenko.)

Utah State University mourns the passing of Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry professor Alexander Ivanovich “Alex” Boldyrev, who died Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, at age 71, after an extended illness.

Boldyrev was a celebrated computational chemist in a range of topics related to quantum chemistry and physical chemistry, as well as a revered mentor and colleague to many Aggie scholars. He joined USU in 1999 and was named the university’s inaugural R. Gaurth Hansen Professor in 2020.

“Alex was a world leader in the application of theory to understanding chemistry,” says Lance Seefeldt, professor and head of USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “His work has been cited over 25,000 times. In addition to his many contributions in research, he was also a leader in training new scientists, with his students often winning teaching and research awards. During his 24 years at USU, he earned great respect and praise for his intellect and professionalism. He will be so missed by all of us in the Chemistry Department.”

USU Vice President for Research Lisa Berreau says Boldyrev’s research generated significant advances in chemical bonding, and his mentorship of graduate students was “equally impactful.”

“Many of Alex’s Ph.D. students moved on to prestigious postdoctoral fellowships and academic positions,” Berreau says. “He cared deeply about USU students and wanted each to have a meaningful learning experience in physical chemistry. He leaves a legacy of excellence that earned him tremendous respect from his peers at Utah State and across the world.”

During his USU career, Boldyrev received numerous accolades for his pioneering research and for his dedicated teaching. In 2021, he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the nation’s top scientific honors. In 2009, Boldyrev received Utah State’s highest research honor, the D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award.

A prolific research writer and longstanding recipient of National Science Foundation support, Boldyrev discovered a wide variety of new classes of chemical species, including all-metal aromatic clusters, inorganic helixes, superhalogens and superalkalis, planar boron clusters and boron wheels binding transition-metal atoms with extreme coordination numbers of more than 10. His recent research focus was artificial intelligence, which he and his students employed in the search for the most stable structures of new molecules and for the computational design of new materials.

In October 2021, Boldyrev was honored with a “festschrift,” a lifetime tribute, by The Journal of Physical Chemistry A. The rare honor by the premier scientific journal recognized the USU scholar’s career of high achievements with a special issue featuring nearly 80 papers authored by researchers from around the world, including a number of Boldyrev’s former students.

In addition to research accolades, Boldyrev was well-known for his mentorship of students. When praised, he was quick to shift the focus to the achievements of his mentees, which included six scholars named USU Robins Award Graduate Student Researchers of the Year, as well as two recent graduates who received highly competitive Oppenheimer Postdoctoral Fellowships. Boldyrev was named Utah State’s Outstanding Graduate Mentor of the Year in 2017.

Born in the industrial Siberian city of Novokuznetsk in 1951, Boldyrev came of age as the space race heated up between the former Soviet Union and the United States. Though only 5 years old at the time of Sputnik 1’s launch, subsequent advances in space exploration fired the youngster’s imagination.

“The space program was the biggest excitement in my life,” recalled Boldyrev in a 2007 interview.

Awed by a chemistry teacher’s presentation to preschoolers, which included “making ‘blood’ suddenly appear,” the youngster knew before entering school at age 7 that he wanted to become a chemist.

The practically minded Boldyrev reasoned that, while chemists might not be called upon to pilot rockets, the scientists were certain to be included in future space exploration.

“My responsibility was developing rocket fuel,” Boldyrev said.

With his brothers and friends, the young lad spent hours building rockets. The simple vehicles were made of paper, but the fuel required greater thought and effort.

“We built our own apparatus to burn wood for charcoal, added sulfur and mixed nitrate from fertilizer into the fuel,” said Boldyrev, who sustained singed eyebrows at least once during his intrepid experiments. “Our rockets traveled as high as 100 meters into the air. For us, it was very high.”

While comic books might have been the expected reading matter for one his age, Boldyrev pored over technical reports issued by TASS, the Soviet space agency. He remembers idolizing Soviet cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, the first person to orbit the Earth.

“The advancement of the space program was so fast,” Boldyrev said. “Gagarin traveled into space just four years after Sputnik. When Sputnik 1 was launched, no one knew if a living thing could survive in space. The excitement was enormous.”

Young Boldyrev surmised humans would soon travel to the Moon, Mars, Venus and beyond. He worried nothing would be left to explore by the time he reached adulthood.

At age 15, Boldyrev’s academic aptitude propelled him to the newly established High School of Physics and Mathematics No. 165, (currently known as the Specialized Educational Scientific Center), a secondary school for students gifted in math and science at the university in Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, some 300 miles from his parents’ home.

Boldyrev reveled in the opportunity.

“Imagine — a school with 300 kids all crazy about science,” he said. “It was so much fun.”

After graduation, Boldyrev advanced to Novosibirsk University, where he completed undergraduate and graduate degrees. During his graduate studies, Boldyrev first encountered quantum-chemical calculations, which shaped his future scientific career. During those years, Boldyrev also met and married Natalia Klimenko Boldyreva, and welcomed their son, Dmitry Boldyrev.

From Novosibirsk, Boldyrev moved to the academic city of Chernogolovka, northeast of Moscow, where he earned a doctoral degree in physical chemistry from Moscow State University and the Institute of Chemical Physics, USSR Academy of Sciences in 1978. Boldyrev completed a Doctor of Science degree, the Soviet Union’s highest scientific degree, from the Institute of Chemical Physics, USSR Academy of Sciences, in 1986.

Employed with the Soviet Academy of Sciences for nearly 20 years, Boldyrev was invited to Germany on an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship and, shortly thereafter, accepted a visiting professorship at the University of Utah before joining Utah State’s faculty in 1999.

“I became an assistant professor at 49 years old,” wrote Boldyrev in an autobiography published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry A in 2021. “I greatly appreciate Utah State University for the opportunity to do science and teach students in the U.S.”

Reflecting on Sputnik’s legacy, Boldyrev said the missions greatly advanced space exploration, but even more significant was the satellites’ impact on STEM education.

“Sputnik tremendously affected Soviet science education, as well as education in the U.S. and throughout the world,” he said, adding he hoped efforts to reach Mars would again spark young students’ interest in math and science as well as fuel renewed commitment to advanced education.

“Mars missions require a whole new level of thought and technology,” he said.

A full obituary honoring Professor Boldyrev is available online. Donations can be made to a scholarship fund created in his honor.


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Ida Walters
Staff Assistant
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry


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