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Research and the Exploration of the Unknown

A look into Tom Chapin’s world reveals the inherent curiosity behind the man who studies how materials behave to help improve public safety.

Tom Chapin, PhD, Vice President, Research and Corporate Fellow

June 6, 2016

Tom Chapin, Ph.D., 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 constant 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 exciting 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.

While in North American Fire and Safety, Chapin focused on how fires develop in residential homes and the characteristics of smoke that formed to develop UL Standards for smoke alarms. Through his research and leadership, Chapin 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 gratifying, “I can, for example, share my knowledge of chemistry to help customers understand some of 140 Standards within the fire area.”

In 2007, Chapin developed a corporate research team, made up of 36 experts from across UL, who assist each other in bridging key informational gaps. The group works with fundamental and material science for the betterment of cross-collaboration.

“The world works because engineers and scientists explain why and how materials behave," he said. "Scientists investigate chemical behavior, and then engineers use this information to establish requirements for safety. At UL, we have created a small microcosm of scientific and engineering collaboration that works."