John Woollam '61
For astronomer-engineer John Woollam '61, work is out of this world
J ohn A. Woollam '61 is a down-to-earth man who does out-of-this-world work.
The George Holmes Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL), he conducts research with his students into solutions to problems experienced by the Russian space station Mir and the Hubble Space Telescope under the aegis of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
From their laboratory in the Center for Microelectronic and Optical Materials Research in the College of Engineering and Technology on the UNL campus, Woollam and his students were instrumental in developing a means of resolving a contamination problem that was accelerating the aging process of Mir. They are also engaged in the challenging task of discovering why a flexible polymer-blanket cover on the Hubble craft is becoming brittle.
The research on the Hubble problem is of some urgency. If pieces of the polymer coating break off and settle on the telescope, they could do serious damage to the optics, destroying the ability of the $1-billion project to achieve its extraordinary results in viewing outer space. If a solution can be found, a space-shuttle crew will likely be sent to replace the defective blanket.
At Kenyon, Woollam was one of only two students in his class to choose a physics major. His mentor was the College's legendary Professor Emeritus of Physics Franklin Miller, with whom he still maintains a warm relationship. "I'm very grateful to the mentoring method of teaching used by Franklin Miller," says Woollam. "As an educator myself, I've been greatly inspired by the interest Franklin has always shown in his students." Woollam's classes are typically much larger than any class he ever enrolled in at Kenyon, so it is more of a challenge, he says, to fulfill that role.
From the College, Woollam went on to Michigan State University, where he earned a master's degree in physics and a doctorate in solid-state physics. He then took a job conducting original research at the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. While working at NASA, Woollam began informally to take courses in electrical engineering at Case Western Reserve University. "The job market for pure scientists was worse than for engineers," says Woollam, "and the opportunities in engineering are still better for grants and for teaching." His studies led to a master of science degree in electrical engineering in 1978.
Woollam joined the faculty of UNL in 1979, while maintaining consulting relationships with NASA, Wright Patterson Air Force Base and Universal Energy Systems in Dayton, Ohio, and Control Data Corporation.
A word that comes up often when Woollam talks about his work and his students is "fun." Even if you haven't a clue about the mechanics of what he does, his enthusiasm for his work and genuine fondness for his students is infectious. "The work is inspirational and fun for students," says Woollam, "and you don't have to be a graduate student to get involved." On three occasions, Nebraska undergraduates have sent experiments on space-shuttle flights.
Much of Woollam's laboratory research is conducted with ellipsometers, devices that use reflected polarized light to detect properties of materials and make precise measurements of coatings that are only an atom or two thick. The ellipsometer, a tool manufactured by a company Woollam formed in 1987, has been greatly improved by the work of his students at the university and by his employees. "Essentially, my students and employees found a way to automate this tool and make it more effective," he says.
The company, the running of which absorbs about half of Woollam's time, now employs twenty engineers and records worldwide sales in excess of $8 million per year. There is always close collaboration between the students in his laboratories and his company employees. While Woollam characteristically declines to take much credit for the successes of his students and employees, it is clear that the mentoring style of leadership he learned at Kenyon contributes to his collaborators' sense that they are free to be creative.
The J.A. Woollam Company has a distributorship in Germany, as well as a new office in Japan. To ease communication, Woollam has raised his one year of high-school German and one year of German at the College to the level of a fluent speaker and writer of the language. "I have several undergraduate students and two postdoctoral students from the former East Germany," he says. "I get to practice my conversational German with them, and they help by filling in vocabulary I'm missing. It's like having a private tutor."
As a person who teaches from his heart and not just his head, Woollam is intensely interested in the training of good mathematics and science teachers who will foster the next generation of students. He has established a scholarship fund in the Teachers College at the University of Nebraska for secondary-school teachers of chemistry, math, or physics.
His philanthropic impulses have also brought him to Kenyon's door, with a generous donation to the physics library that will be part of the new natural-sciences complex. "The College provided a wonderful experience for me and a firm foundation for a lifetime of professional growth," he says. "It feels good to give something back." Woollam's daughters, Catherine and Susan, have followed him into the teaching profession. "Cathy teaches special education in a high school in Lincoln, while Susie is a high-school science teacher in Omaha," he says proudly.
Woollam's sense of fun isn't confined to things academic or out of this world. Owner of a 1964 wooden Cris Craft powerboat and a twenty-three-foot sailboat, he has been a water-sport enthusiast since his junior-high-school days. Recently married to Cyndi Harrell, he spent his honeymoon with her sailing in the Virgin Islands. He and Cyndi have also traveled to China, Hong Kong, and Japan, and Taiwan, as well as many places in Europe.
Wherever John Woollam's research efforts and the growth of his business may lead him, it is certain that his commitment to helping his students build careers in the sciences will retain a central place in his life. It is also certain that he will continue to have fun while seeking ways to apply college research to the real world.
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