Asking the Right Questions

John Warner - Lowell, Massachusetts
As heard on Bob Edwards Show, July 27, 2012
John Warner

Chemist John Warner is proud of the new compounds he’s helped to synthesize. But after his son died from liver failure, Warner began to wonder why he was creating those chemicals at all. Now he believes in challenging the old assumptions of science.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I’m a chemist, and I thrive on laboratory work. In college and graduate school, I would arrive at my lab before the sun came up, and spend 60 hours a week or more there. After graduation, I got a job in industry and my passion for lab work resulted in several patents and the synthesis of countless chemical compounds.

My success, I believed, came in asking the right questions.

As my career evolved, so did my family, but my son John was born with a birth defect called biliary atresia. I spent many nights in the hospital with him. I would review Excel spreadsheets in the wee hours of the night. One file showed my son’s blood electrolyte levels, and another file charted how my chemical compounds were performing back at work. By this time in my career I figure I must have synthesized over 2,500 compounds.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending. At the age of two, my son John died after a failed liver transplant. I can’t begin to describe the anguish that followed — the nights I lay awake wondering how did this happen? No one knows the cause of this disease. What if some chemical I worked on caused my son’s illness?

I had prided myself on the ability to make compounds, and on the ability to ask myself the “right” questions. But it hit me, that for eight years of undergraduate and graduate education, at no time in my schooling did I ever have a class in chemical toxicology or environmental impacts of chemistry. Come to think of it, no universities in the world require chemists to learn these things. It’s just not in our curriculum. So the people inventing products for industry — people like me — have not been taught how to do it any other way.

Now, I believe the most important question — the right question that has not been asked — is a simple one, really: “Why?” “Why do we have hazardous chemicals?” “Why do we make things the way we do?”

I believe that the right questions are not being asked enough. And perhaps more troubling, the response rings out: “But that’s the way we’ve always done it!” And that is exactly the point. We chemists need to take a look at our relationship with the community we serve, focusing on the cumulative effects of the compounds we release into the environment. We can start by changing the way we teach chemistry to future chemists and to the general public.

Society is demanding safer materials, industry wants to make safer materials; the next generation of chemists needs to learn how to do this. We need armies of students to go into chemistry and materials science to learn to invent safer products.

I understand the physiological causes for my son’s disease are complicated, and it is very unlikely that my son’s illness and subsequent death were linked to any chemicals from my lab. Still, a father can find ways to blame himself when his son dies. Blame won’t change the past. But I believe by asking the right questions — by challenging the old assumptions — maybe we can change the future.

John Warner is co-founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Wilmington, Massachusetts, where he develops environmentally benign chemicals. A one-time rock musician, Warner encourages young people to express their creativity by studying science.

Independently produced by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.