He began college at the Case School of Applied Science in 1939 but grew disillusioned with the treatment he received there. As the only black student in their cooperative program (designed to find work for its students), he found it demeaning to be told that the school's efforts to find him a job in a hospital kitchen or as a busboy were fruitless. He transferred to the University of California Berkley, then back home to eventually graduate from the University Of Illinois School Of Chemistry in 1943. Gardner took a research post at the University of Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory.
For the next four and a half years he was involved on classified plutonium research that was known as the Manhattan Project-the making of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945. He worked under nuclear scientist Dr. Enrico Fermi and radioactivity scientist Dr. Nathan Sugarman. Gardner was one of more than a dozen black scientists who were involved in research on the atomic project. Those black scientists known to have been involved in the metallurgical laboratories also included Lloyd Albert Quarterman, Edward A. Russell, Moddie Taylor, Harold Delaney, Benjamin Scott, J. Ernest Wilkins, and Jaspar Jefferies. A second group at Columbia University included George Dewitt Turner, Cecil Goldsburg White, Sydney Oliver Thompson, William Jacob Knox, and George Warren Reid Jr. Despite his work on the atomic bomb, Gardner could not find an academic position in his field when he left Argonne in 1947 so he worked as a waiter until 1949.
Known throughout most of his life as "Ralph Alexander Gardner," he added the "Chavis" surname late in his career in recognition of his relationship to John Chavis, the first African American to graduate from Princeton in 1760. In 1949 he became a research chemist and project leader at the Standard Oil Company in Ohio, where he remained for almost twenty years. Gardner-Chavis then took a teaching position in Cleveland State University's chemistry department, where he remained full-time from 1968 to 1985.
He later combined part-time teaching with work in the research lab of Molecular Technology Corp., a private firm where he also served as the Vice President of Research and on the board of directors. Currently, he holds emeritus status in the CSU Chemistry Department, where he continues his research on catalysis and molecular technology, topics on which he has published numerous scholarly articles.
He became a pioneer chemist whose research into plastics led to the development of so-called "hard plastics." His innovations in the manipulation of catalytic chemicals led to the products for the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries as well as plastics.
Dr. Ralph Gardner-Chavis became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity in 1942 and AICHE in 2001.