IN MEMORIAM: John O’Brien, USC Viterbi Executive Vice Dean of Engineering

USC Viterbi Staff | April 2, 2017

John O’Brien, Executive Vice Dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, passed away March 31, 2017

In his memo to the USC Viterbi faculty and staff, Dean Yannis C. Yortsos summarized John O’Brien’s impact: “In his relatively short but brilliant career, John was an outstanding scientist and engineer, a superb administrator, but above all a remarkable human being. His loss will be deeply felt across all aspects of USC Viterbi, from student and faculty recruitment to academic programs, to research and mentoring and to strategic directions. But most importantly, John’s lasting legacy will be that he helped establish in the school a remarkable culture of collaboration and inclusion, one based on character and ethics, respect and understanding, selflessness and kindness, service and commitment, and the constant pursuit of excellence.”

John O’Brien was born March 6, 1969, three days after the Apollo 9 launched.

A professor of electrical engineering-electrophysics, O’Brien, a native Iowan, received a B.S. degree in electrical engineering in 1991, from Iowa State University, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1993 and 1996, respectively.

He joined USC in 1997 as assistant professor. In 1999, he received the coveted Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the U.S. government’s highest award for scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers, as well as a 2000 NSF Career Award. O’Brien rose rapidly through the ranks and was promoted to full professor of electrical engineering in 2006. He joined the Dean’s office in 2006 as Sr. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and was appointed as the first USC Viterbi Executive Vice Dean in 2011.

John O’Brien worked closely with many faculty, department chairs and staff to advance USC Viterbi in its multiple endeavors. In particular, he was instrumental in coordinating student recruitment and academic programs across USC Viterbi.

“He was one of the kindest individuals I have known, always with a ready smile, easy laugh and quick wit,” said Louise A. Yates, USC Viterbi senior associate dean for admissions and student affairs. “He was respectful in each and every interaction, regardless of who you were. It can easily be said that all of us were better people as a result of our interactions with John.”

“John was not only a colleague I deeply respected, but a very dear friend,” said Kelly Goulis, USC Viterbi senior associate dean of graduate and professional programs. “He embodied all of the very best qualities. He was brilliant, conscientious, sincere, caring, fun loving – the list is endless. Over the course of more than a decade, we worked closely together. I am blessed and grateful for the many memories we have shared. Memories I will cherish forever.”

During an important transitional moment in the history of the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI) – often referred to as USC’s crown jewel research institute – O’Brien served as interim executive director from 2012-2013. O’Brien’s leadership and unique talents for consensus building allowed a smooth transition from the Herb Schorr era (1988 to 2012) to the new leadership by current Keston Executive Director Prem Natarajan (2013 to present).

Said Natarajan, “John is one of those rare individuals who at once embody technical brilliance, social adeptness, selflessness, and humility . . . His sense of morality, his innate wisdom, and his grasp of details made him an uncommonly effective advisor, whose opinions could always be counted upon to serve no purpose other than the mission at hand.

A senior member of IEEE, his research interests were in nanophotonics and photonic crystal devices. Over the years, O’Brien developed new courses for the USC Viterbi School in electrical engineering topics ranging from EE 509 Electromagnetics for Semiconductor Photonics to EE 599 Advanced Quantum Mechanics.

Among his many distinctions, O’Brien was a member of the Optical Society of America. In addition to serving as associate editor of IEEE Transaction on Nanotechnology, he has served on the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) Subcommittee on Optical Materials, Fabrication and Characterization from 2003-2005, the Integrated Photonics Research (IPR) Subcommittee on Nanophotonics for 2004-2005, the Technical Program Committee for the Device Research Conference for 2004-2005, the Technical Program Committee for the Information Photonics Conference for 2005, and the Semiconductor Laser Committee for the IEEE Lasers and Electro-Optics Society (LEOS) annual meeting for 1998-2002, 2005. He also served as the organizer and chair of the Photonic Lattices sessions at the 2000 and 2002 Laser Workshops and was the Co-Organizer of the Photonic Crystals Sessions at the Electronic Materials Conference (EMC) for 2002.

His mentor and colleague, Professor Dan Dapkus said, “John’s passing is a tragic loss for me and for all of his colleagues at USC. John was always intellectually honest and deep in his approach to the technical problems we studied together. I learned a great deal from him. He was also a wonderful mentor to his students – demonstrating and expecting excellence – yet always available to share his knowledge and insights. Working with him has been a high point in my career at USC.”

A USC Viterbi event celebrating John O’Brien’s life will be held in the next few weeks, on a date to be announced.