Materials Chemist

John P. O’Brien

John P. O’Brien thinks science and technology get short thrift in the minds of young people who are largely influenced by the ever more pervasive presence of the rich and famous.

“In today's world where sports and entertainment get so much attention,” he said, “it is easy to forget that science and technology are not only fun and exciting but make life better for countless people in a way that winning a game or enjoying a movie can never do.”

O’Brien, a research fellow for Dupont’s Central Research and Development Department, said that when he was young his role models were teachers and scientists who helped him understand the excitement of chemistry, and he encourages school children today to seek out “celebrities” of their own.

“Enjoy sports, movies and games,” he said, “but choose your role models from among those people who are making a lasting difference in the world.”

At Dupont, O’Brien helps to develop new polymers, fibers and plastics. He’s particulary interested in making use of materials found in nature, such as the many types of fibers made by spiders, some of which are tougher and stronger than nylon.

“Some of these,” he said, “may be used in the future for bullet proof vests and other protective clothing.”

In the same fashion, he’s keenly interested in various materials made by plants, animals and microorganisms that can be used to make day-to-day living easier and more comfortable.

“In my lab you might find me looking at cocoons, insect fibers or plant materials that I found in the woods or in my backyard that appear to have interesting properties or unusual structures,” he said. “Sometimes I work with other scientists to figure out what these materials are made of and how we might be able to duplicate their properties and perhaps make them even better.”

In general, O’Brien is fascinated by nature and exactly how it – not man – has created some of what he considers the most amazing materials -- seashells, wood, cotton fibers, silk fibers, and teeth, to name a few.

“The world is full of incredible materials,” he said, “that have yet to be understood and equaled by man-made materials.”

O’Brien’s interest in science started with a chemistry set that his older brother received as a gift. He recalls watching his father and brother run experiments and that one of his favorites was making hydrogen and listening to it pop when it was ignited in a small testtube.

That chemistry set ultimately led to a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, a Ph.D. in chemistry, a longstanding career with Dupont and a lifelong curiosity about the wonders of nature.

“The world is full of incredible materials that have yet to be understood and equaled by man-made materials.”