ATLANTA—James McGrath wanted to be a polymer scientist even before he knew what one was.
Growing up on a farm in New York, the boy, destined to blaze trails in the field of polymer science, began his career by means more arbitrary than scientific: A nearby silicone plant proved more enticing to him than working on the farm.
``I thought it would get me off the farm,'' he recalled. ``I became a chemist because I had the impression they wore white coats and worked inside.''
McGrath would go on to make an impression on the world of science and in the field of plastics. Currently, he is a distinguished professor of polymer chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.
The road from the farm to Virginia Tech has wound through a career distinguished by patents, technical papers, mentoring and awards, one encompassing industrial research and academia.
Most recently, McGrath was bestowed the Society of Plastics Engineers' most prestigious honor, the International Award, during its Annual Technical Conference.
McGrath, 63, ranks the award — as well as being inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1997 and elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1994 — among the highlights of his career.
During a plenary speech at Antec, held April 26-30 in Atlanta, he detailed some of the work he and his colleagues at Virginia Tech have done to develop adhesive and composite materials for supersonic commercial aircraft.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Boeing Co. are interested in the technology. Boeing, in particular, hopes to develop it for an aircraft capable of flying at Mach 2.4, which could allow for travel from Tokyo to Los Angeles in 41/2 hours.
After the speech, a jovial McGrath recalled the stages of his career with fondness. He has a face that looks as if it couldn't produce a frown if it wanted to, the face of a man who enjoys what he does for a living.
In 1956, McGrath graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from St. Bernadine of Siena College in Albany, N.Y. After spending a year in the Army, a period he called ``a good time,'' he spent the next several years feeding a fascination with polymers.
He worked as a research scientist at Rayonier Inc., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Union Carbide Corp.
His work at Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, was part time while he attended an evening master's program at the University of Akron.
``Before I knew it, I had a master's,'' he said. He later received a Ph.D. in polymer science from the university.
In 1965 he took a full-time post with Goodyear. At the company, McGrath helped improve synthetic rubber, developing polymers that remain big sellers. During his time at Carbide, he worked on engineering thermoplastics, silicone copolymers and the commercialization of the gas-phase method to make polyethylene, called the Unipol process.
Then in 1975 he ``took a shot at the academic environment.'' The next year McGrath was assistant professor in Virginia Tech's chemistry department. Since 1989, he has directed the National Science Foundation's Science & Technology Center at Virginia Tech. The center focuses on research in high-tech polymer glues and composites like those used to bond airplane parts together.
McGrath has been a leader in the synthesis of a large number of new polymers and engineering thermoplastics, including block and graft copolymer, siloxane-based resins, rubber-toughened thermosets and thermoplastic elastomers.
He has received more than 35 patents covering the synthesis and chemical modification of new and useful polymers and polymer systems. He is responsible for building the multidisciplinary polymer materials program at Virginia Tech and has published more than 250 technical papers.
Aside from his scientific bent, McGrath plays jazz trombone, a hobby that, in 1953, gave him the opportunity to play with jazz trumpeter Rex Stewart. McGrath still was living in New York when Stewart was playing at a nearby club on the memorable night. McGrath said he was asked to fill in for Stewart's trombonist. He recalls the event as a highlight of his life.
McGrath said he still performs at the annual Halloween party for his students. ``We call our band `Poly and the Mers,''' he said, laughing.
During his Antec plenary speech, McGrath took the time to mention more than a dozen mentors and colleagues who have aided him throughout his career. He thanked his students, with whom he said he enjoys a good relationship.
McGrath has a wife, Marlene, and six children.
Continuing down that road that began on the farm, he said the future holds many opportunities for the further utilization of both moderate and high-performance polymeric materials in structural adhesives, polymeric matrix resins and electronic resins.
``It's been a great ride for the last 40 years,'' he said, adding he plans to ``keep on trucking.''
The International Award was established in 1961 by SPE's New York Section. It includes a $5,000 honorarium and a gold-plated medal.