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Staying Home — and Solving Problems

Controlled burn in Carrboro
Assistant Professor Bryan Ormond at a controlled burn in Carrboro, North Carolina, to inform his research.

By Jessica Roulhac

From student to tenure-track professor, the support of the Wilson College of Textiles faculty has been a common theme for Assistant Professor of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS) Bryan Ormond ’07, ’12, who also has a joint appointment in the Textile Protection and Comfort Center at the college.

As a student, it was a greeting by name while walking down the hallway. As a professor and one of the leading experts in the area of protecting first responders from dangerous chemicals, it’s the daily reminder that he’s part of a tight-knit community that feels like home.

Ormond was the first in his family to attend a four-year university. The Pine Level, N.C., native’s early steps on campus came by way of attending a luncheon at the college. Ormond wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but his soon-to-be roommates would tag along — and the rest is history. 

“I think the first semester, being from a small town, the [then-College of Textiles] spoke to me,” he says. “The Wilson College is very much a home to me now. Thinking about it the other day, I have actually been in this building for half of my life.”

Ormond began his first year in polymer and color chemistry nearly two decades ago. In 2003, he was among the first cohort of students to participate in the program. The shared experience was exciting and reassuring. There was also someone special who would be studying the same program: Ormond’s future wife. 

“We actually got married at the college,” he says. “My life is very much tied to this place.”

As a student, Ormond was in NC State’s marching band for a year. He was also in the basketball pep band for longer, as he would continue through his second year of graduate school. 

Switching roles

Ormond wasn’t sure about his next steps after earning his bachelor’s degree, but he received an opportunity to explore graduate school. He hadn’t thought of anywhere else other than NC State.

A quick change from the master’s degree track to a Ph.D. program in fiber and polymer science meant that Ormond would be at the university much longer.

Well, he hasn’t left. 

“I tell people I’ve seen everything the college has to offer — from both sides of the classroom.”

After earning a Ph.D., Ormond did one year as a postdoctoral student. Then, he transitioned to becoming a research assistant professor. The next role, becoming a tenure-track professor, would be a test in persistence and patience. Ormond would learn that the third time was the charm with his application process. 

Before applying to become a tenure-track professor, his first teaching experience was to lead a class previously taught by his former advisor, Professor Keith Beck. In this new space that required learning while on the job, Ormond’s students were among his biggest supporters. 

“One of the things that stuck out was students’ feedback,” Ormond says. “They appreciated what I did. They could tell I was going above and beyond for them. I came out not questioning myself, and it was through their validation.”

Affirmations through course evaluations kept Ormond going. He had students and faculty cheering him on, and he was successful with his third application to join the faculty.

In April, Ormond was recognized by the NC State Alumni Association. He was one of six faculty to receive an Outstanding Teacher Award, highlighting his excellence in teaching.

“There’s nowhere else where I can do what I do, and work with the students, and teach classes, and the research and have the impact I know I can have here,” Ormond says. “Perfect place, perfect time. I’m very lucky.”

Protecting first responders

Today Ormond is one the top experts in his field. At the university, he’s the go-to professor for firefighter protection gear. You may even see a firefighter wearing one of the smoke-resistant turnout suits that he developed.

For firefighters, Ormond and his team began to think differently about personal protective equipment. It was now about thermal protection — and particulate protection. Think of dust, soot, dirt and potentially cancer-causing particles. The inhalation and absorption of such particles can have long- and short-term impacts on first responders.

“We started shifting and saying, ‘How do we make sure that [firefighters are] not just [safe] at the end of the day but [at] the end of the[ir] careers?’” Ormond says. 

Currently, he is looking at groups who are often under-researched, including wildland firefighters and fire investigators. Wildland firefighters may be out in a fire-scorched scene without the opportunity to switch gear as often. They’re being exposed to harmful chemicals for a longer period of time. 

Fire investigators lack dress code regulations while being at the scene, and Ormond wants to help them dress for the occasion. He’s working on a three-year project to evaluate different types of equipment and protective clothing. 

For him, seeing the connection between people, chemicals and protective equipment has been fascinating. It’s been an honor to serve firefighters and the first responder community. 

“We’re all working towards this goal of trying to separate those two terms of firefighter and cancer as much as we can because we owe it to them to be better in the PPE and give them the training and the resources that they need,” he says. 

Protecting the Pack

No one could have predicted that 2020 would require a worldwide effort to combat a pandemic and rush to save lives through effective face coverings. With very little to go off of at the time, Ormond did what he does best: connected with his tight-knit community to help others.

“On the last day I was allowed in [the Wilson College building], I picked up a couple of pieces of equipment and set up a lab in the home,” Ormond says. “I set up a screening approach for face coverings.

Ormond’s team committed to providing the best information they could at the moment, while preparing for future pandemics. 

Once walking the halls as an undergraduate student, Ormond had now become a top expert for face covering guidance. He also sat on a committee to create design and performance guidelines for these life-saving accessories. 

More than anything, Ormond was proud that the world got to see textile manufacturers in action and serving others. It’s what they do each day.

“I don’t think that was shown any better than the past year when so many textile manufacturers switched over,” Ormond says. “Not t-shirts anymore — now, we’re making face coverings.”

If this past year has reminded Ormond of anything, it brings him back to the promise of a polymer and color chemistry degree. He shares this piece of advice: “Let [students] know their work doesn’t stay in one place. It’s going to have an impact.”