In Memoriam: Yoshi Okamoto
The entire NYU Tandon School of Engineering community mourns the recent passing of Yoshi Okamoto, an esteemed research professor and director of Tandon’s historic Polymer Research Institute.
Professor Okamoto was born on May 10, 1926, in Osaka, Japan, and traveled to the U.S. in the early 1950s to attend Purdue University, where he studied with renowned chemist and Nobel Laureate Herbert C. Brown. After being awarded his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry and spending time as a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the research division of NYU’s School of Engineering and later became a faculty member in the Department of Chemical Engineering. When NYU’s engineering school merged with the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1973 to form the Polytechnic Institute of New York, Professor Okamoto came to Brooklyn to continue pursuing his interest in the synthesis, characterization, and application of new functionalized polymeric materials. Additionally, he was a research scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1985 to 1993 and a principal investigator of the New York Center for Advanced Technology Ultra-Fast Photonic Materials at the City University of New York from 1993 to 1996. He later focused on fluorinated polymers and their use in plastic optical fibers under the patronage of Professor Yasuhiro Koike of Keio University.
Professor Okamoto remained active well into his ninth decade, receiving continuous research funding and mentoring dozens of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows who went on to impressive careers of their own in academia and industry. (One of his former Ph.D. students, Junji Kido, is a world leader in the design and fabrication of novel organic light emitting devices.)
His most recent research concerned the design and preparation of fluorinated polymers for optical fibers and for permeable membranes for gas separation and fuel cell electrolytes. His co-authored 2020 paper, “Novel polymer membrane could give boost to fuel cell vehicles,” won high praise for its description of a hybrid material with the potential to pave the way for vehicles whose only effluent is water vapor.
Professor Okamoto was perhaps best-known at Tandon as the director of the iconic Polymer Research Institute (PRI), which had been founded by Professor Herman F. Mark in 1946. Under Mark, who is widely acknowledged as the father of polymer science, the PRI became the epicenter of the field, and anyone who wanted to seriously study polymers flocked to Brooklyn. When private companies or other universities launched their own polymer centers or programs in later years, chances were good that a scientist who had been affiliated with the PRI had helped. The American Chemical Society designated the PRI as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2003, and two years later Okamoto ascended to the directorship. The Institute continued to draw visitors from all over, and he took great delight in showing them around as they marveled at the school’s role in making polymer science a vital branch of chemistry.
He is, however, respected for much more than his research and scholarship. Colleagues often commented on his energy, and Vice Dean for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Kurt Becker has recalled first coming to Tandon and seeing him cheerfully and vigorously cleaning his own lab; it was only later that he realized that the white-coated figure was not a janitor or lab assistant but a distinguished professor. His sense of fun (and willingness to bend the rules from time to time) were also well-known: the local fire department once had to be called after he allowed his research assistants to dispose of unlabeled flasks of rocket fuel by hurling them against a brick wall.
For his 90th birthday, in 2016, the School honored him at a celebration that attracted attendees from around the world. One former doctoral student, Henry Mei, said at the time, “It’s hard to overstate the contributions Professor Okamoto has made both to science and to his students ... I hope we get to gather again in honor of his 100th birthday.” Although that wish will remain unfulfilled, his former mentor’s legacy will always live on here at NYU Tandon.
Our deepest condolences go to his wife, Michiko; son, Ken; daughter-in-law, Nita; brothers Osamu and Shinzo; grandchildren, Arman, Tadao, and Tomoyuki; and great-grandchild, Bellarose.
More memories of Yoshi Okamoto — Scientist, educator, and friend
“Yoshi was a treasure to all of us, not to mention a great chemist with a sparkling imagination across many areas, almost without limit. I remember hearing praise of him by those who knew him as a young man in Osaka in the years after the war, a student who copied by hand almost all of Herbert Brown’s publications so as to read them on the long voyage to America and be ready when he arrived. And Yoshi, especially, was one of us who strongly pushed the historical links over the years, from the days of Herman Mark’s arrival to when Yoshi came from NYU as part of the transfer of faculty during New York State’s bailout of both schools from financial difficulties. In those days, so different from the flush times we live in today, a smiling Yoshi would, without resentment and while carrying out world-class research, make his own dry ice, supply unmentionables, and deal with frozen pipes and broken frozen glassware as the school had difficulty paying fuel bills. And so it goes on and on; perhaps someday, some of you here now in your productive years, will be remembered by those who follow. Goodbye, Yoshi. Many of us respected and loved you.”
– Professor Emeritus Mark M Green
“Yoshi had an indomitable spirit, which I encountered early in my tenure with the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Sharp scientifically, deeply curious, and intellectually demanding, he illustrated many of the best aspirations of our profession. While confident in his own abilities, he was also deeply humble, with a wicked sense of humor. We can all be proud that he was a part of our community. I am very happy I got a chance to get to know him.”
– Professor David Pine
“I will remember him telling me about the institute and Herman Marks and encouraging me to build up the polymer and soft materials areas of the department, adding to our recent junior hires, Miguel Modestino and Nathalie Pinkerton. In fact, he was collaborating with Miguel and Research Professor Kalle Levon up until the beginning of the pandemic. My last memory of him was when he generously offered his glassware to Nathalie's and Miguel's groups and to anyone who wanted them as we cleaned up the old chemicals in one of his labs. He will be missed.”
– Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department Chair, Eray Aydil
"Yoshi was a dear friend, a caring mentor, and an inspiring collaborator to me. His perseverance, energy, and passion for scientific innovation were contagious and motivated me to join him in the search for sustainable methods for one of the most challenging gas separations in the industry. His dream was to develop materials that could separate light olefins from paraffins, a process that is responsible for the production of most of our plastics. We will miss his laugh and his deep insights, but he will continue to inspire us, and we will honor his legacy by continuing the search for sustainable approaches to this separation."
– Director of Tandon’s Sustainable Engineering Initiative, Miguel Modestino
“I met Professor Okamoto during the pandemic. I was very surprised to see an elderly man coming to work at NYU during those times. The buildings were otherwise almost deserted. I asked him where he lived and he said in Fort Lee, NJ!! Apparently his wife was driving him to NYU in a commute that is about an hour even with zero traffic. I was quite shocked. He made a real impression on me. Very serene, strong and clearly very smart. . . . a real role model for all of us.”
– Professor Elisa Riedo
"I had many interactions with Yoshi over the years. He was always very sharp and eager to talk about his new results on polymers for optical fiber applications. One time I told him about a polymer of a very specific refractive index that was commercially extremely expensive. Yoshi wrote a recipe and asked his post-doc to formulate it. Within minutes he gave me exactly what was needed, saving several thousand dollars. He had deep respect in the scientific community and his contributions will be remembered for a long time."
– Professor Nikhil Gupta