By Raymond Jones

When Dr. Warren Jasper chose his college major at MIT, he picked a major (aeronautics and astronautics) that could easily have positioned him for a future in space flight or interplanetary exploration. Now, as one of NC State’s most distinguished faculty members, he is using his in-depth knowledge of textiles to develop a filter that will more effectively scrub the air in commercial airports. 

While some might see a disconnect between Jasper’s early interest in space and his current focus on finding innovative uses for textiles, there is a common thread running throughout his career. That thread is an extraordinarily curious mind coupled with a strong passion to better understand how things work. This combination of intellectual traits is the reason some colleagues at the Wilson College of Textiles regard him as a “Renaissance Man.” 

Those traits also had a lot to do with his selection as a Jefferson Science Fellow (JSF) for 2020-2021.The JSF program is not as widely known as some other highly selective programs, such as Fulbright awards or Rhodes Scholarships. Nonetheless, the JSF program measures the same in terms of impact, and occupies a unique niche within the realm of higher education.

JSF was created by the U.S. Secretary of State in 2003 and administered by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Its stated purpose is to tap the talents and expertise of “strategic thinkers” whose understanding of scientific advancements can help shape key public policy discussions, climate change being just one example. Up to 15 Fellows are chosen each year, each assigned to a different division within the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

Jasper’s start-up at the State Department was delayed for several months due to concerns about COVID. Then, when he did report for duty in early 2021, his tenure got off to a rather inauspicious start. His second day on the job was January 6, a date when Washington DC was in lockdown and the streets surrounding the Capitol were shrouded in tear gas. 

Despite the disruption he went on to have a productive tenure at State. And while some of his research undertakings were conducted with a degree of secrecy, he does regard the JSF as one of the most important milestones in his career — a career that’s been full of highlights. 

Jasper has long been in demand as a speaker at professional conferences. He’s also a prolific contributor to peer-reviewed scientific journals. For example, any student in the mood for some light reading can pick up a piece he once co-wrote entitled, “Direct probing of solvent-induced charge degradation in polypropylene electret fibers via electrostatic force microscopy.”

Dr. Maria Almanza, director of external faculty awards and recognition at NC State, praises Warren for being so engaging as a classroom instructor.

“He is a gifted teacher,” she says, “who is inquisitive, passionate about learning and always willing to adapt.”

This latter quality proved helpful this past year, as Jasper was adapting to his new work environment at the State Department. I have found the State Department to be an extremely well run organization,” he says. “One thing that took me a while to get used to is how ‘diplomatic’ everyone is. In addition, they are excellent communicators. They work calmly in crisis situations, and ‘leadership’ for them isn’t just a buzzword.”

The leadership traits he most wants to bring back to NC State include running meetings more efficiently, valuing other peoples’ time and making sure everyone feels listened to.

“The folks at the State Department also stressed one other key leadership skill,” he says. “That’s the ability to articulate key scientific issues, projects and principles in ways that non-scientists can understand.”

Jasper’s interest in research with high practical value was recognized by another entity in 2021, the Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU). RDU sponsored a competition called the Triangle Impact Challenge in an effort to identify better ways to keep passengers safe during parking, ticketing, screening, waiting, shopping, dining and welcoming. 

The competition drew the attention of 90 participants from Duke, NC Central, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill and RTI International, promoting 16 different ideas. Three winners were ultimately chosen, with the top-ranked winner being none other than Warren Jasper himself, who submitted a proposal in collaboration with a colleague from Duke. 

Jasper and his partner won grant funding to support their search for a better way to clean the air in jetways. They believe there is a higher probability of viral transmission in jetways, because “people are standing in a poorly ventilated, enclosed space for a long period of time.”

He reports significant progress in the effort to produce a working prototype.

“Our goal is to produce a small filtering device that could be placed unobtrusively in any jetway,” he says. “We’re combining our knowledge of fabrics with our knowledge of electrostatics to figure out a filtration methodology that will not only screen out pathogens but de-activate them. We’re optimistic it can be done.” 

Jasper’s work for RDU clearly validates Almanza’s additional description of him as “one of NC State’s foremost problem-solvers.” 

Jasper, who teaches in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science, will be returning to campus full-time when his Fellowship ends in October. According to Almanza, he is one of five NC State professors to have been selected by JSF since the program was started in 2003.

“NC State faculty fit especially well with this program,” she says, “given that they often translate and apply their research in the interest of the public good.”