Purdue Profiles: John Weaver

December 2, 2014  

John Weaver

John Weaver, strategic facilities officer at Birck Nanotechnology Center. (Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)
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When John Weaver was offered a job to run a facility that had yet to be completed, it only took him 10 seconds to say yes.

As the strategic facilities officer at Birck Nanotechnology Center, Weaver is charged with enabling research through safety, operating efficiency, creativity and collaboration. Collaboration is key, as 35 different Purdue departments and schools use Birck for its research capabilities. Even though working with so many different faculty can be challenging, Weaver thoroughly enjoys the community atmosphere and everyday interactions that Birck offers.

What's a typical day in the life of a strategic facilities officer?

It's different every day, there's no question about that. My biggest role is when we've got new equipment coming into the facility that has specialized needs. I have to work out where we want to put that equipment, and then work with Mark Voorhis, the building manager, on how we're going to install it. I'm working a lot with faculty on how we accommodate new projects and new equipment. That's as typical as my day gets – we've got this new thing that's coming, and we've got to figure out how we're going to handle it.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

Finding locations that are the most appropriate in terms of technical space for equipment that's coming in; that's the biggest challenge. We are bursting at the seams in terms of the space that we have occupied. We just did a huge project that was funded by the Provost's Office where we expanded the amount of laboratory space we had. We took spaces that weren’t used as much, from a storage room to some area beneath the cleanroom to an area of the dock, and turned those into laboratories because we're growing so much.

What do you like most about working at Birck?

The interaction with the people is my favorite part of the whole thing, and also finding a way we can solve challenges by finding a place to put something. When the equipment starts working and good research comes out of it, it's very satisfying to know I had a role in enabling world-changing research. Some of the work we're doing is truly world-changing.

What's the most interesting thing you've experienced at Birck?

Building the facility was the most interesting, and also the most challenging. When we built the Birck center, it was a one-of-a-kind facility. There was no place in the country, or the world, that had the sophistication that this facility had. That was quite the challenge because at the same time, we were bringing equipment in that was being invented.

One of our fun stories is about the transmission electron microscope. I kept talking to a faculty member about how I needed the details to determine what facilities he needed. He kept saying, "I'm trying to get them, but I don't have them yet." I asked if we could put more pressure on the company that was building it, and he said, "This is the first one that they've ever built with this capability, so they're trying to figure out what they need to do." Then I understood; obviously you can't get information that hasn't been invented yet. We have an old joke about scheduling inventions. You just can't do that.

Outside work, you are involved in the National Park Service in training park rangers about historic forts, and another of your jokes is telling people that nanotechnology pays for your fort habit. But how did you get involved in that?

I started out with an interest in forts. I read a book I was really impressed with, "Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History" by Emanuel Raymond Lewis. I became fascinated by 19th-century brick coastal forts and the craftsmanship that went into them, so I got involved in trying to find them. As I started researching, I realized a lot that was written in the 19th century was inaccurate, so I had to go back to primary sources. I decided that I needed to document this information and make it available to the public. I wrote a book that sold out very quickly and became very popular within the National Park Service. Then they started asking me to come and speak, and they asked me to do ranger training.

Similarly, I've worked with a lot of states that own forts. Often, they don't have the resources to do the research that I've already done, so I volunteer my research and my time to them. This fall I’ll be training the rangers at Fort Sumter National Historic Site and doing a major public program for them as well.

Writer: Kourtney Freiburger, 49-62993, kfreibu@purdue.edu 

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