In Memory of Dr. John O’Brien, My Supervisor and Friend.

April 19, 2017

Photo Credit: © 2012 Steve Cohn/ Steve Cohn Photography

By Donghai Zhu

It’s Friday, March 31, 2017. I was feeling kind of dizzy, faint, and a little bit absentminded for no apparent reason. On my way home from work, I got an email. All of a sudden, I was shocked and I couldn’t believe it.

That night, I felt cold throughout my body and couldn’t fall asleep. I don’t know how long it took, but I eventually did and had a dream. John was sick and was falling down. We all surrounded him, but we couldn’t help and we were so desperate.  A while after, I had another dream. John was falling and we were around him again. Everybody wanted to help him. Fortunately, I had the medicine with me. I gave it to him immediately and he survived. John was saved!

I woke up and couldn’t sleep anymore. I turned on my computer and checked my email. I noticed it was April 1st – April Fool’s Day. I kept telling myself, it’s not true, it’s a prank. In the next few days, I couldn’t stay calm.

John, do you know that I sent you an email on Thursday and cc’d you on a couple of emails on Friday? Did you read them? I’m still waiting for your reply.

John, we have bi-weekly meetings on Monday at 4:00PM. It’s on my calendar for the rest of this year. On Friday, I was preparing the spreadsheet to discuss with you on Monday.

John, a week ago, we climbed the ladder and went to the mezzanine of the VHE clean room together. Only a few people have visited the unusual space before. I expected to do the same thing with you in the new clean room in MCB.

Donghai Zhu, manager of the clean room, which is used for nanofabrication of advanced materials. The clean room supports over 30 faculty members and 90 PhD students from across USC Viterbi.

A few years ago, Dr. John O’Brien became my supervisor when he assumed the role of Director of the Photonics Laboratory, as well as Executive Vice Dean. Among his many responsibilities was to help manage the fundraising and building of a new, much needed clean room in the Michelson Center. As the clean room manager, I was a little bit nervous.  But after a few times talking to him, I felt that he was very kind and easy to go along with. He met me in his office to understand what’s going on in the clean room and he visited the lab several times to find out what we needed and to make future plans. He told me that whenever I wanted to meet him, to feel free to contact his assistant to make an appointment. Since then, I have been relaxed.

John, we will do our best to continue what we were doing and finish the job you started. Whenever I enter the remarkable 10,000 sq. ft., class 100 nanofabrication clean room, I will remember you.

Over the summer, John was on vacation and on the road. But we had an urgent request for information to be entered into the Cores billing system.  He called me to discuss how to get it done in a very short time. He gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him whenever I wanted. We worked together with 25 Private Investigators, the Office of Research in USC, as well as business analysts in many departments. Eventually we collected and put about 80 users’ information in the system and got the work done in just three days, right before the deadline. During the entire time, John was in touch with me and the faculty.

Donghai in the current clean room in VHE. The new clean room is scheduled to open next year.

Another weekend night around 10:30PM, I received an email from John. He was working on a proposal for the clean room. He needed some information from me, so we emailed each other back and forth. In the meantime, I emailed a vendor for questions. Luckily, the vendor was online too. The three of us discussed in emails for about an hour. We ended with a good offer and John submitted the proposal right before the deadline. It was late and quiet, but I was very happy to work with John. We were so close and the darkness couldn’t block us. I cherished this wonderful moment and it is a good memory. We won the proposal.

In an Annual Faculty and Staff Awards Luncheon, John chose to sit next to me instead of at the table of senior officers and administrators of the school. Although he probably didn’t even think about it, to me this was a great honor. He wanted to talk to me about the clean room in the very limited time he had.

On Tuesday March 28, three days before his passing. John sent me his last email. He wrote:


If you think this asher, with a small repair, will improve our capability here, I’m in support of accepting the donation.

– John”

Yes, he supported me, supported the clean room, and supported all of the faculty, staff and students.  John is the model image of both scientist and senior administrator. He used his talent of research in the school management. His schedule is always very busy. He can handle multiple tasks and deal with details.

In the State of the School Address on September 20, 2016, Dean Yannis Yortsos said:

“But I would be remiss if I did not single out and thank from this forum, Executive Vice Dean John O’ Brien, a remarkable person, whose fingerprints are behind every Viterbi success. I am indebted to him.”

John, we all are indebted to you.

John, we will do our best to continue what we were doing and finish the job you started. Whenever I enter the remarkable 10,000 sq. ft., class 100 nanofabrication clean room, I will remember you.

John, you are the person who says less, but does more. Your contribution may not be seen by everyone, but the nano-features you fabricated and imprinted play an important role in the engine of the engineering school.

John, you can‘t see the completion of the nanofabrication clean room in MCB. However, the nano-stamp of your name will be there forever, along with the growth of faculty, students, and their research.

John, you are an extraordinary person. You are the nicest and smartest supervisor I have ever had. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you directly. You are still listed as my supervisor on Workday – who will I report to now? 

John, I know you worked very hard and handled so many things with your patience, insight and intelligence, day and night, weekend and holidays, for the school and for us. You might be a little bit tired. It’s time to take a break, get some sleep, and rest in peace.

John, we will always miss you and we thank you for everything.

Donghai Zhu is the clean room manager at the Keck Photonics Laboratory, where he was supervised by Dr. John O’Brien. The new nanofabrication clean room, a project directed by John, is scheduled to open in November of this year. See John and Donghai in this video supporting the initiative.

Published on April 19th, 2017

Last updated on May 9th, 2018