Remembering Ken O’Driscoll, department chair and inspirational professor

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Professor Emeritus Ken O’Driscoll passed away on August 4, 2020, at the age of 89.

O’Driscoll was an internationally respected polymer science researcher, a talented teacher, and a kind and inspirational mentor who worked in the Department of Chemical Engineering between 1970 and 1992. His research in polymerization kinetics and polymer synthesis and characterization influenced many products we know and still use today, including hydrophilic contact lenses (also known as ‘soft contact lenses’), which he developed in 1971.

O’Driscoll joined University of Waterloo as chair of the chemical engineering department. He soon became known for making decisions in a transparent style that allowed colleagues to know and understand his reasons. He was a well-educated, progressive thinker with a wide range of interests, and he balanced this knowledge with his sincere care for people and flexibility in finding solutions.

An indication of his philosophy was the small poster that he hung in his office as a touchstone. It displayed this quote by author and theologian Harvey Cox: “Not to decide is to decide.”

Quick wit

In addition to his effective administrative style, O’Driscoll had firm command of his sense of humour. His playful nature and quick witty remarks were legendary. While the examples far exceed what could be published here, we’ll share a small sampling.

Early in his time in the department, O’Driscoll was approached by Professor Tom Fahidy, who had been teaching successfully for about a decade when a student submitted his final exam booklet empty, aside from the insults that filled the first page. The mildest one invited Fahidy to “join the human race.” When Fahidy shared the exam booklet, O’Driscoll solemnly proclaimed: “Give him ten. Five for clarity and five for brevity.”

O’Driscoll’s common response to students that approached him with complaints about their exam grades was: “Gentlemen, I do not give marks. I just record them!”

As a mentor to Professor Alex Penlidis in the 1990s, O’Driscoll comforted Penlidis’ tenure promotion anxieties with this advice: “You should not worry at all. You are doing extremely well. And do not forget that, as per the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, if you do so well, another 20 people are working hard to perform well below average!”

Polymer research

In addition to his administrative duties, O’Driscoll was an enthusiastic researcher. During his career, he published more than 200 research papers related to his field of interest: polymerization, polymer reactor engineering, hydrophilic gels and bound polymer catalysts. He understood the importance of using the information revealed by research to improve quality of life.

To that end, he was a Founding Director of the Institute for Polymer Research (IPR) at University of Waterloo in 1984. The Institute was established to provide research services to polymer-related industries as well as comprehensive graduate instruction in polymer science and engineering. To this day, it continues to conduct applied and fundamental research in areas of vital interest to the plastics, coatings, adhesives and elastomers industries. It has earned an international reputation for making research initiatives pay off for a wide variety of companies. Along the way, the Institute for Polymer Research has supported the development of countless polymer experts, many of whom are continuing O’Driscoll’s research and teaching future generations of chemical engineers.

Valued mentor

O’Driscoll’s interest in his students’ well-being and enthusiasm for collaborating with them was matched by their feelings for him. They viewed him with great respect, as a supervisor, mentor and friend.

Queen’s University professor Michael Cunningham reflects that, over the three years that he was O’Driscoll’s doctoral student, O’Driscoll had an enormous influence on his life and the evolution of his career. “Ken was an outstanding scientist, but also a kind and superb mentor who was generous with his time and able to convey his passion for research to his students. The lab pulsed with a genuine enthusiasm and excitement for research. Ken’s influence led me to an academic career and shaped my life so profoundly.”

Rosemary Anderson, who was the Institute for Polymer Research’s Administrative Assistant for 27 years, echoed those sentiments when she recalled the seven years she worked with O’Driscoll. “Ken made me feel like an important part of the team. The most valuable outcome of our collaboration was what I learned by simply observing Ken in his everyday interactions with myself, the students and the university community at large. Through his humour, grace and calm approach to life’s dilemmas, he taught me to be patient, have a positive attitude and remain optimistic.” 

Ken O’Driscoll’s direct contributions to and positive influence on our department, the IPR and those of us fortunate enough to know him were significant. He will be missed, and his memory will be cherished.

Ken O'Driscoll working in the Polymer Synthesis Lab, in the early eighties.
Ken O'Driscoll in the Polymer Synthesis Lab, in the early 1980s, opening and inspecting the contents of a polymerization reactor.

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