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Tom O'Brian

Dr. Tom O’Brian became the Chief of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) Quantum Physics Division (QPD) in October of 2009. Fellow Adjoint O’Brian is also head the Time and Frequency Division at NIST-Boulder. O’Brian divides his time equally between the JILA and NIST campuses. He also travels back and forth to JILA or NIST as needed.

Despite the logistical challenges of holding two key leadership positions, O’Brian is delighted to be part time at JILA. “JILA is an outstanding scientific research organization,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be here.”

Many JILAns feel that it’s a privilege to have him here as well. O’Brian’s vision of his job is (1) procuring necessary tools and resources, (2) creating a supportive environment, and (3) freeing JILA scientists, staff, postdocs, and students to do outstanding research. “JILA already gets the best people to come here,” O’Brian said. “My job is to give them an environment in which they can succeed, help them overcome barriers, and empower them to do the best possible science.” He added that he is a very open person and encourages people to “come see me,” whether it be with a problem or to report on the latest, greatest research results.

The good news is that he’s likely to understand those results. O’Brian received his Ph.D. in experimental atomic physics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There, he used laser-based and classical optical techniques to make precision measurements of atomic oscillator strengths in the near infrared through vacuum ultraviolet spectral regions. This work landed him a coveted National Research Council (NRC) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at NIST in Gaithersburg, Maryland. During this period, O’Brian conducted fundamental studies of the interactions of atoms with the extremely strong electromagnetic fields generated by lasers. He also conducted research on atomic physics at NIST’s Synchrotron Ultraviolet Radiation Facility (SURF). Hired as a NIST Staff Physicist in 1993, O’Brian gradually transitioned from fundamental research to participating in strategic planning, technical program development, analysis of scientific issues, and management in NIST’s Program Office, where he eventually spent time as director. 

O'Brian is married with two grown children. So long as the weather cooperates, he tries to climb at least one of Colorado’s 58 Fouteeners each weekend. His conquests include Mount Bierstadt and Grey’s and Torrey’s peaks. “Those are the ‘easy’ ones,” he acknowledges. “Some of the 14ers involve technical climbing, and I’m going to need an experienced rock-climbing mentor to help me get to the top of the more challenging ones.” Mentor candidates are encouraged to drop by A232 to “talk shop.” Of course, so is everyone else at JILA.