The Right Chemistry
A Q&A with Kevin Olsen, Chemistry Instrument/Research Technician in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Since 2003, instrumentation specialist Kevin Olsen has kept the laboratory instruments in the University’s chemistry and biochemistry labs in top condition. A published historian, he is also about to receive his Ph.D. in Environmental Management from Montclair State.
What are your current responsibilities as a Chemistry Instrument/Research Technician?
My primary role is to free the faculty members’ time for research and teaching by assuming responsibility for three basic tasks – repairing broken or damaged laboratory instruments; keeping equipment in calibration so it generates accurate measurements; and teaching students instrumentation skills. I also help arrange equipment donations from local companies. When a piece of equipment no longer works, or can’t be repaired, I’m often in charge of its disposal.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
It’s working with the students. My colleagues on the faculty are truly wonderful people and I am grateful, as well, to have the opportunity to work with them.
What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Management?
I’d always wanted to earn a Ph.D. and was able to take advantage of all the educational opportunities at Montclair State. I always felt like an underachieving slacker with only a master’s degree in chemistry!
I like to sail, mostly on New Jersey’s freshwater lakes, especially Packanack Lake in Wayne, and that is one reason I developed an interest in water pollution. My Ph.D. thesis advisor Mike Krug, and Eric Stern, who is on my committee, turned me on to sediments. My dissertation is about sediment chemistry in urban areas, like the Gateway National Recreation Area, the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the Passaic River.
Will you make any changes once you receive your Ph.D.?
I have no plans to move from the chemistry department, but I would like to teach evening classes as an adjunct instructor. I’ve also been discussing reviving the history of science class in the College of Science and Mathematics. It would include a lab component in which students would recreate important historic experiments or chemical processes, such as measuring gravity with a pendulum, determining longitude with a clock and shadow-stick, or taking a wet-plate photograph with Civil War era technology – though I’m still trying to figure out if this would work in the time allotted for the class!
You write about chemical history and New Jersey maritime history. Is this a lifelong interest?
I’ve always been fascinated by history. My mother’s side of the family all lived in Garfield and Wallington. My grandfather would tell me stories about the people and places in the old neighborhood. He was a skilled machinist at Wright Aviation – I still use some of his tools in my work. The green toolbox on my workbench in Richardson Hall was his.
At one time or another, just about every man in my father’s side of the family had served in the Navy. This combination got me interested in local maritime history. When I was 14, I began volunteering at the archeological research lab at Wayne Township’s Van Riper Hopper House Museum. I was still a museum volunteer years later when I met my wife on a dig!
So, I had an active interest in history and archaeology long before earning a degree in chemistry. I write about history for the same reason other people paint pictures build furniture by hand, or grow prize-winning roses. My next project will be a magazine article about how inks were created in the colonial era.
What do you do in your spare time?
Along with sailing, I confess to a passion for model railroads and skiing. I also enjoy playing bad golf, reading great books and drinking good beer. I never have understood why every sport I take up seems to require a lot of equipment!
What are you reading now?
With only a few weeks until my dissertation is due, I’m not reading much of anything right now. Every summer, I try to read one “great book” – the last one was The Castle by Franz Kafka.
Do you have any other guilty pleasures?
Every Sunday night, the TV must be showing Masterpiece Theater. Sadly, my wife and I are both still in Downton Abbey withdrawal!