Alumnus wins prestigious national chemistry award

Benson reflects on how a CU Denver professor once told him, ‘You can do this’

November 27, 2017
Robert Damrauer and Olester Benson, 1982
Chemistry Professor Robert Damrauer and Olester Benson at CU Denver spring commencement in 1982.

Olester Benson has helped design the manufacturing processes for everything from sandpaper to license plates to optical components used on a deep-space satellite. As a photochemist working for 3M, he’s done all that within the same lab.

He didn’t always intend to be a chemist, though – that career path started as a 26-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Colorado Denver.

This year, Benson was selected by the National Organization of Black Chemist and Chemical Engineers to receive the Percy Julian Award. He also served as the keynote speaker at the organization’s annual meeting in Minneapolis. The organization’s most prestigious award, the Percy Julian Award is named for the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, recognized for his work pioneering the chemical synthesis of drugs such as progesterone, corticosteroids and birth control pills from plants. This work helped expand the use and ability to produce large quantities of several important drugs.

Today, the award that bears Julian’s name recognizes entrepreneurship, scientific rigor, professional impact and overall excellence.

“There are people who, when they come into this world and they take their first breath, they have a laser focus for what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives – and then there’s the rest of us,” Benson said. “When I take a look at all the activities I’ve had, all the different jobs I’ve had, I realize it prepared me for where I am now.”

Educational serendipity

Benson’s first career was as an infantryman in the military, and he’d never considered studying chemistry – much less getting a PhD in the subject. He was a nontraditional student on active duty as a pharmacy specialist in the Army, with a family, working a regular job every day at the then-Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. He went to college at CU Denver in the evenings and eventually graduated with a BA.

The journey didn’t end there, though. One of his professors, Robert Damrauer, now associate vice chancellor for research at CU Denver, told him he had talent in chemistry, and that he’d need to go to graduate school to achieve what he was capable of in the subject. Damrauer drove him to CU Boulder and introduced him to the professors and the world of professional academics.

“How often would a teacher come to your house, pick you up and take you 35 miles away to show you something?” Benson asked. “College tours were never part of my life, but someone saw something in me when I was 30 years old. He said, ‘You can do this.’”

Damrauer remembers Benson as a “very serious student” as an undergraduate – very similar to today’s CU Denver students. “He was juggling a whole normal life of having a family and a job while being a student,” Damrauer said.  “He did very, very well at Boulder.”

Benson with research group at CU Boulder and professor Tad Koch in 1988
Benson with research group at CU Boulder and Professor Tad Koch in 1988.

Soon, he was studying for his master’s while still on active duty and, later, on his way to earning a PhD in chemistry.

This background prepared Benson in a unique way for a research career. He learned to take risks, but also to work within a regimented environment. Both his education and the Army taught him to make things happen, even when the tools weren’t readily available.

“You want to start a program, but no one wants to give you money, so you learn how to improvise, scrounge, wheel and deal to make things happen,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to get resources when you’ve done something already, and shown feasibility.”

A varied career

Being a part of a corporate development lab, Benson has worked on a wide variety of projects through the years. He’s helped develop new technologies than have created over 300 products, and he has received 68 issued U.S. patents, with additional patents currently pending. His first four patents at 3M were filed with his cube partner from graduate school. He says one of the most important things scientists can do is value the problems they have to overcome.

CU Denver alumnus Olester Benson
Olester Benson

“A lot of times you’ll start on a quest, and have to solve other problems along the way,” he said. “Those little problems are big problems. They’re important to other people.”

Benson has helped develop reflective surfaces that make license plates and trucks more visible at night. He’s worked to make abrasives more efficient and environmentally friendly, and developed technology for cell phones, laptop computers and tablets – making displays both brighter and less power-draining. The technologies that he helped develop were responsible for generating thousands of jobs worldwide over the years within the company and for their suppliers and industrial customers. He was also involved in the manufacture of flexible optics that the Deep Space 1 satellite deployed to collect the solar power it used to power a number of on-board systems.

Benson said the most rewarding part of his career has been to teach others.

“The things that I’ve derived the greatest pleasure from are when I see the soldiers that I’ve trained, the engineering students that have spent time with me in my lab, the engineers I’ve recruited and hired – it’s when I see them be successful in their own right,” he said.