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Tom O’Brian, Our Inspiration and Champion

Tom O'Brian portrait
Credit: Paul Tranbow
Tom in 2010 on the grounds of the NIST Boulder campus.

Note: Tom O’Brian died on Nov. 21. He began his 29-year NIST career on the Gaithersburg campus and transferred to the Boulder campus and JILA. Leadership positions he held during his career include director of the NIST Program Office, director of the NIST Boulder Laboratory, and chief of PML’s Quantum Physics Division and Time and Frequency Division. At the time of his death, he was serving as chief of PML’s Quantum Physics Division, which comprises NIST employees (including nine of the JILA Fellows) who work at JILA on the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado. For additional details about O’Brian’s career, see the online obituary that JILA has posted.

By David Nesbitt
NIST and JILA Fellow

I have had the honor of knowing Tom O’Brian, both professionally and personally, over the past 15 years. He was my division chief, a wise and thoughtful counselor, perpetually encouraging and unflaggingly optimistic. Even in the midst of his many duties, he always had time to talk about what was on your mind, virtually leaping out of his chair while gesturing for you to sit at his table and talk.

My biannual meetings with Tom for performance reviews were always a joy. Before I could ask him how he was doing, he would start out profusely thanking me for my scientific and personal contributions to JILA and for “making my job easy.” Then he would settle in and listen carefully to any concerns I might have, offering thoughtful responses and advice. I would leave his office feeling a renewed sense of confidence and scientific direction, knowing that he had my back as well as everyone else’s at JILA.

The “secret sauce” in Tom’s management style was ironically one of non-management, putting his superhuman energy into keeping the path of JILA science clear of obstacles and maintaining an unswerving faith in the talent of his people. In that simplest but rarest of ways, he brought the best out of everyone, not by imposing demands or constraints, but by his optimism, enthusiasm and personal empowerment.

Tom was also faced with his own set of adversities, which made him endearingly real and very human, though admittedly a hard person to get to know deeply. I like to say that Tom was sometimes a hard person to know, but at all times he was a very easy person to love.

The loss of Tom O’Brian was shocking and completely unexpected. Walking the halls of JILA since his passing, it has been impossible not to think of running into him. He was a shining beacon of kindness and warmth, which touched our lives in fundamental ways. Many people have spoken far better than I about his remarkable leadership and vision. Instead of trying to do that, I'd like to share a few vignettes of Tom that may capture a slice of his cheerful personality, human sensitivity and enormous emotional intelligence.

JILA X-Wing addition ribbon cutting
Credit: Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado
Ribbon cutting to dedicate the new JILA X-Wing addition at the University of Colorado Boulder. Left to right: Tom O'Brian, chief of the NIST Quantum Physics Division; Philip DiStefano, Chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder; NIST Director Patrick Gallagher; and Eric Cornell, JILA Department Chair and Nobel Laureate.

Tom the optimist

I first got to know Tom a decade and a half ago while I was serving as JILA chair and he was starting  a dual role as chief of both PML’s Time and Frequency Division and PML’s Quantum Physics Division. This was when the very first thoughts of building an X-Wing onto the University of Colorado’s JILA building were emerging — an initiative that required brokering deals between NIST and the University of Colorado (CU). This began what felt like weekly meetings with upper CU administration, Boulder newspapers, and the CU Foundation staff.

I think of myself as pretty optimistic, verbal, and high energy, but I couldn't compare to Tom. Working with him in these meetings was an absolute delight. It’s a happy part of the JILA chair’s role to brag about all the great things going on at JILA, but at times it could feel a bit self-serving to brag too much. The beauty of these meetings was that Tom was like the proud grandfather of JILA and felt no such restrictions. If I would start to flag in my verbal enthusiasm for the greatness of JILA, Tom would leap in and come up with three more examples of that greatness. He would explain why the long-standing NIST/JILA/CU federal-academic collaboration has been a jewel in NIST’s crown of scientific achievements, while also giving all relevant statistics for why building an X-Wing would be advantageous for CU.

In essence, Tom and I wouldn’t play the game of “good cop-bad cop” — but, rather,  “good cop-fantastic cop” (Tom, of course, being the fantastic one!). It was a strategy that worked to great success. He was such fun to work with. With his political savvy, command of the relevant facts, and cheerful ebullience, Tom charmed everyone around him and enabled the X-Wing to become a reality.

Tom' Obrian and Dave Wineland
Credit: Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado
Tom, then chief of PML's Time and Frequency Division, lifts a glass to toast Dave Wineland the day the latter found out he would receive the 2012 Nobel prize in physics.

Tom the singer 

Tom’s wife Caroline struggled with cancer for several years, receiving many different drug regimens, procedures and trial protocols. Throughout this time, Tom was resolutely optimistic and never lost hope. When I would ask Tom about how Caroline was doing, he would be very forthright and would talk about some new drug or trial protocol that they were trying, always evincing the most positive attitude about the possibility of success. As the challenges of Caroline’s battle against cancer grew, Tom began to talk about how important it was to keep trying, and that in that effort of trying he and Caroline felt a renewed sense of commitment and that they were the closest they had ever been.

When Caroline finally lost that battle, Tom was very sad but also a bit hard to reach out to, as he didn’t tend to talk openly about his grief and quickly refocused his efforts on maintaining a life for his family. Despite his genuine sensitivity and openness, Tom was a bit hard to know — at least to know well — which I think made it challenging for many JILAns to reach out to him in his time of sadness.

Since I had experienced some recent losses myself, I took the first step, asking Tom if he would like to head out some evening. To my surprise, he said, “Thank you, David, for thinking of me. That sounds wonderful.” That evening, we got to talking, and one very interesting point came up:  that Tom was an avid choral singer, with he and Caroline having sung in their church’s gospel choir back in Gaithersburg.

As I am also a singer, Tom started to come regularly to my choral group’s concerts, warming to the idea of himself getting involved in singing again. In particular, he came to a concert last December that featured music composed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission and moon landing. He confided to me later with obvious emotion how profoundly meaningful that concert was for him and how many strong memories of his youth it had evoked. His was a sensitive soul, touched by art, science and music.

Tom the inspiration

I grew up scientifically as a Ph.D. student at JILA and have always known that JILA is a very special place to work. Many leading scientific institutions around the world have recognized JILA as being unique, and the scientific leadership of those institutions have visited JILA trying to figure out what makes it “tick.”

Some part of me would like to think JILA’s specialness is all about our brilliant scientific research and our brilliant scientists both young and old. But Tom’s passing inspires me to pay tribute to an arguably more significant root of JILA’s success. More than the science, I’d say it’s about the long-standing culture of supportiveness that has been fostered by champions like Tom O’Brian. These champions have had the good sense to know that JILA thrives and prospers not by people looking out for themselves, but by the career-long successes of every Ph.D. student, postdoc, instrument maker, computer & electronics guru, purchasing-office staff member, receptionist, administrator, financial analyst, building proctor, custodian, etc. Tom O’Brian was special in so many ways, but above all in his understanding of this simple yet powerful truth.

Tom lived out  this understanding daily through his kind, supportive interactions with all his fellow JILAns. I also think he realized more than any of us how fragile this democracy and esprit de corps at JILA might be. He knew that great scientific institutions, despite their greatness, can succumb to “upstairs/downstairs” pecking-order tendencies.

I feel that Tom’s passing offers all of JILA an opportunity to renew our dedication to maintaining the kind and supportive scientific culture that he so dearly loved and worked so hard to nourish.

Created January 3, 2020