Alumni Spotlight: John Ballato, PhD ENG’93, GSNB’95, ‘97

“That kid sitting next to you in class is someone you’ll have a professional relationship with for the rest of your life. I’m still using the network I built back when I was a student.” – John Ballato

John Ballato is the vice president for economic development at Clemson University and a professor of Materials Science and Engineering. A recipient of the 2009 School of Engineering Medal of Excellence for Alumni Achievement in Academia, he recently received the 2014 South Carolina Governor’s Award for Excellence in Scientific Research in optical materials science. He has served as principal investigator on more than $35 million worth of sponsored programs, has published more than 150 archival papers, countless invited lectures and colloquia and holds 20 U.S. and foreign patents. He is also a co-founder of Tetramer Technologies, L.L.C.

Why did you choose the School of Engineering?

My story isn’t that different. My father got his master’s degree in electrical engineering at Rutgers. My brother was a Rutgers undergraduate.

I was born and raised in New Jersey and wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I always wanted to be an engineer. I started out wanting to be a chemical engineer, but a dorm mate convinced me to look into materials science.

Did you go straight through to graduate school?

I stayed at Rutgers straight through for my Ph.D. That’s in and of itself an interesting story. At that time, much was made that one institution wasn’t enough, that you needed to broaden your horizons. We tell students this at Clemson today. But at that time, the Rutgers Fiber Optics Material Research Center was the best in the country, if not the world, so I stayed on.

Did you always want to go into academia?

At the time I was a student, the telecommunications and dot com build-up was starting and most of us were expected to go to work for places like Corning or Bell Labs.

In my case, I got a job to supplement my income at a local community college, helping to train people in installing optical fibers. That’s when I realized I liked to teach. I already knew I liked research and so added teaching to the mix and looked for academic, as well as industrial, jobs. Ultimately, I found myself in Clemson, South Carolina.

That must have been a change for you.

It was a little bit of a culture shock to say the least! The move to a fairly rural environment took some getting used toThis is a quintessential college town, though, and like Rutgers, Clemson is a state land grant institution.

I didn’t expect to stay here. I thought I’d begin my career here and move on. But I’m now in my 18th year at Clemson. This is a great environment – not just academically and professionally. It’s a great place to raise a family and to recreate.

What does your job as the vice president for economic development involve?

I have the privilege of seeking to define what differentiates Clemson and selling the intellectual capabilities of Clemson’s faculty, staff, and students to industry in South Carolina. I help bring the resources together to help create jobs and wealth.

To do this, I have to roll up my sleeves. I have to know what we do well and how to leverage all that our faculty, staff, and students can offer that will increase the state’s economic productivity. 

You started out as a teacher. Do you still teach?

I still teach, but not as much as I used to. I’m not teaching this year, but I did last year. I have an active research group and continue to publish papers.

How do you find time to do it all?

It’s like anything else. You have to set priorities. So, my first priority is my job. My second is my research. People come here to Clemson to teach and do research – it’s why we’re here in the first place. Doing research is part of my DNA.

What is your current research focus?

My research all stems from my time at Rutgers. I focus on optical fibers or materials that interact with light. I served as director of Clemson’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies for 14 years -- so much of my work has been under that umbrella.

New designs are needed for optical fibers that can keep up with today’s performance demands – whether in telecommunications, weapons, or other systems. So what we try to do is develop new materials that can go into the fibers to help performance keep up with demand.

How else did Rutgers influence you?

Two professors, Richard Riman and Richard Haber were hugely influential. In different ways, they each played a formative role in my career and my life. Professors George Sigel and Eli Snitzer were also big influences.

What were your biggest takeaways from your SoE education?

I took two things away from my experience. One, because my time was oriented around the fiber optics industry, I learned the importance of keeping research relevant. You can do exploratory, blue-sky research, but the real value is when it is informed by commercial need that has a public good attached to it.

This has always resonated with me. It’s so rewarding to see the work you’ve done actually impacting people.

The second thing is my Rutgers network. The kid sitting next to you in class is someone you’ll have a professional relationship with for the rest of your life. Students should be careful not to burn bridges – you never know how these relationships can play out down the road. My School of Engineering network is a network of lifelong collaborators and colleagues.

Every week, I’m in touch with someone from Rutgers, because I’m still using the network I built back when I was a student. I tend to call on people I know to help students find jobs, for instance. I can’t think of a single time I didn’t first contact someone I went to Rutgers with when I’ve been helping a student find a job.

What do you do for fun?

I’m a single dad to a ten, an eight and a five-year-old. So my fun is being with my three young children and watching them grow physically and intellectually. They are my life outside of work.

I also have two companies, both local small businesses. One of them, Tetramer Technologies, is a specialty materials company near the university. Most of our employees are Clemson grads.

What should visitors to Clemson do?

At Clemson, football reigns supreme – no offense to my alma mater! So if you’re into football, a Clemson football game can’t be beat.

What was the last book you read?

I just read Homer’s Odyssey for part of the Aspen Institute’s global initiative. And I recently finished Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson’s biography.

What’s a favorite student memory?

Only people who were there will remember this one, and that is a party we threw in the Ceramics Building late one Friday night that got us into a lot of trouble!

If you were to go on a vacation tomorrow, where would you go?

I’d go back to Italy. I took one of my sons there this summer when I went to a conference. I want to take the whole family back! We flew to Rome, went to Florence, where my conference was, and flew home from Pisa. I can’t wait to go back!