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Exploring the limits of performance and the boundaries of safety
Tom Chapin, PhD, Vice President, Research and Corporate Fellow, thinks of himself as a behavioral scientist but not in the traditional sense. He investigates the behavior of materials. Throughout his career, Chapin’s favorite part of his job has been evaluating complex systems to see how things work and then determining how they break.
“Organic and polymer chemistry is my core knowledge and it has given me a fabulous foundation to apply in other directions such as chemical health, synthesis of materials and/or how materials age in the environment,” he said.
Chapin lives by the words that UL’s founder William Henry Merrill said a long time ago, “Know by test and state the facts.” He concludes with “and model the rest” because the phrase needs finishing to encourage the contemporary concepts of predictive modeling.
While engaged in telecommunications research, a position held for 21 years at Bell Labs, he asked unending questions about how cables and buildings were affected by fire. Chapin then sought out the safety connection for things that burn.
Chapin believes that discovery and the exploration of the unknown is an interesting aspect of research. Typically researchers create a hypothesis and then develop a plan to see where it leads. While sometimes he admits you get a surprise, it might not be what was expected. At the same time, when something happens, it is important to understand what it means and how it follows the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry.
Chapin was introduced to UL in 1992. As a first-time customer, he was amazed by UL’s safety mission. The relationship gave him a chance to work alongside our researchers and show how standards established the benchmark for safety and also promoted innovation. In 2001 he made the jump to UL and started a new career as general manager for the North American Fire and Safety Sector. He has been with UL 15 years and now can be found in corporate research.
While in North American Fire and Safety, Chapin focused on how fires develop in residential homes and the characteristics of smoke that formed in order to develop UL standards for smoke alarms. Through research and leadership, he also has been part of the UL Fire Council since 2002. He continues to work with fire marshals, fire chiefs and others to improve education on controlling fires.
While leading the Council is a huge responsibility, he says it also has been very rewarding, “I am able, for example, to share my knowledge of chemistry to investigate the effects of ethanol in motor fuels to help customers understand some of 140 standards within the fire area.”
In 2007, Chapin asked for the development of a corporate research team, which is made up 36 experts across all UL business units, which will assist in bridging key informational gaps. The group works with fundamental and material science for the betterment of cross collaboration. “I realized that the research I was doing would create a greater knowledge base among all disciplines,” he said.
Beginning July 1, Chapin will add to his responsibilities and become an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University, Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering. He will work with Department Chair David Schiraldi to develop curriculum and become a thesis advisor for students.
“The world works because engineers and scientists explain why and how materials behave—Scientists investigate chemical behavior and then engineers use this information to establish requirement for safety. At UL we have created a small microcosm of scientific and engineering collaboration that works,” he concludes.