December 13, 2016
By: Vernon Davidson
Scientist Dr Gavin Jones created history last night when he became the first Jamaican named among Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers.
Jones shared the award with his IBM research colleague Jeannette Garcia for developing a process to chemically recycle plastics while preventing BPA (bisphenol-A) — a chemical that is added to many commercial products, including food containers and hygiene products — from leaching.
“What we’ve been doing at IBM is trying to figure out how to chemically recycle plastics,” Dr Jones told the Jamaica Observer yesterday shortly before he caught a flight from California to Washington, DC, where he collected the award at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Foreign Policy magazine, in explaining the reason for recognising Jones and Garcia in its ‘Innovators’ category, said: “Every year, industry produces more than 2.7 million tons of hard polycarbonate plastic, used in smartphones, eyeglass lenses, and many other products. Difficult to recycle, it winds up in landfills, where it leaches the industrial chemical BPA. So Jeannette Garcia and Gavin Jones, chemists at IBM’s Almaden Lab, have developed a process that introduces new elements to polycarbonates that prevent BPA from leaching. The recycled, reconstituted plastic isn’t just durable. Garcia described it to
CNN Money as “an environmental win on many fronts”. Because it doesn’t decompose like other polycarbonates, the material might be safe to use in water purification, fibre optics, and other systems. Trash, in short, could take on new value.”
Yesterday, Dr Jones told the Observer that he was informed about the award “about a month and a half ago”.
“It was very surprising because I didn’t realise that the research that we had done on this innovation had attracted so much attention and someone would actually think of it as being a goal worthy of a prize,” he said.
The award places Jones in the company of world figures such as Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing-wen, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and US Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who are among the 100 being recognised this year.
A graduate of Morant Bay High School, Dr Jones left Jamaica in 1999 for Bart College in New York, after which he earned his PhD in theoretical/computational organic chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2007. His focus there was on computational investigations of synthetically relevant organic reactions.
On completion of his PhD, Dr Jones conducted postdoctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying mechanisms of organometallic reactions.
He joined IBM Research in 2010 as a postdoctoral researcher and, in 2013 became a research staff member in the computational chemistry and materials research group focusing on computational investigations of mechanisms of polymer formation and degradation. He is also engaged in investigations on the physical properties of high performance polymers.
Yesterday, Dr Jones’ A-QuEST tutor Dr Dennis Minott was over the moon after learning about the award.
“He’s the closest Jamaican I know we have to being a Nobel Prize winner,” Dr Minott told the Observer as he reminisced on the A-QuEST group of which Jones was a member approximately 20 years ago.
According to Dr Minott, himself a noted scientist and educator, 18 members of that group now hold PhDs. “They have done exceedingly well, and they had a sense of ‘smadyness’ that they could attain anything,” he said.
He recalled the extremely tough conditions under which the group, comprising students from Morant Bay High, St Thomas Technical High and Happy Grove High schools, studied.
“The thing about it is that they travelled from Morant Bay all the way to Golden Grove, had no bus to go back home… when class finish, my one little bruck-down car had to take them, or one or two parents who had a car would help them,” Dr Minott recalled.
“It was the only A-QuEST group for which I had to carry mosquito repellent and burn mosquito destroyer, because to the south of the place where they studied — Golden Grove Primary School — was a banana field, to the east was a river with crocodiles, [and] to the west were cane fields, but they were diligent and they worked,” he said.
“That whole spirit of going after things, both as individuals and as a group, was very much there from those times. When they were hungry, they went into the cane field and chopped cane to ease their hunger, or they would get four tins of sausage and share them,” Dr Minott said, adding that the then principal at Morant Bay High School, Valerie Marshall-Lodge, also gave the group a lot of help.
Yesterday, Dr Jones explained that he opted to migrate to the US because he felt there were more opportunities there to engage in research, connect him with other people who share his scientific interests, and give his work a chance “to have a more global impact”.
In addition to ‘The Innovators’, Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Global Thinkers awards are presented in eight other categories – ‘The Decision-makers’, ‘The Challengers’, The Artists’, ‘The Advocates’, ‘The Chroniclers’, ‘The Moguls’, ‘The Stewards’, and ‘The Healers’.