Joseph DeSimone On Being An Inventor in EarthSky

February 24, 2012 - Malvern, PA

By Jorge Salazar

Joseph DeSimone is a chemist, an inventor and a man with vision into the future. He holds more than 115 patents. One of his first involved a green approach to making high-tech polymers – plastics like Teflon and Gore-Tex – without the use of hazardous solvents. Dr. DeSimone spoke of his work, about what it’s like to invent things and about what he sees as the role of science in this century, with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar. This podcast is part of the Thanks To Chemistry series, produced in cooperation with the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Generous sponsorship support was provided by the BASF Corporation. Additional production support was provided by The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, DuPont, and ExxonMobil.

How would you describe what you do?

"We work at the interface of a lot of different things. And I think at one level we’re problem solvers. At another level we’re entrepreneurs. I don’t know exactly how to describe it any more or less accurately than that.

Really, at the end of the day, we’re materials scientists. We like to apply the capabilities of polymer science and new polymer chemistries to tackle problems, mostly today in the life sciences. [Editor's note: Polymer scientists and polymer chemists work with chains of molecules - built up from many similar units bonded together - creating materials such as plastics.]

We make things. That’s one of the reasons why I like polymer science. At the end of the day you actually have something."

Tell us about your upbringing. What sort of upbringing fosters an inventor?

"My parents are terrific people. My father is a tailor born in Italy, and my mother is an accountant. We had constant encouragement and strong schooling, and we had active participation in science fairs and the like. My father was very meticulous and inquisitive, and certainly showed us leadership through example. And that was a great environment.

In high school I fell in love with biology and chemistry classes. I remember one day in particular, the teacher in high school explaining pH acidity and base acidity. And I remember thinking, you know, I have absolutely no idea what he just said.

I don’t think he really knew what he’d just said. So I went home that night and read up. I taught myself about pH and came in the next day. As the class topic continued that next day I remember basically explaining to the classroom all about pH. And everybody got it, including him I think. And I knew then I had a knack for not only understanding, but also explaining."...