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TAPPI YP Spotlight: John DeJarnette: Jessi Spadaccino

TAPPI YP Spotlight: John DeJarnette

Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Author: Jessi Spadaccino

Learn how John DeJarnette’s science degrees and need for speed led him to become a Senior Researcher, a 2020 TAPPI YP of the Year Award Winner, and a considerable contributor to the ever-changing paper, pulp, and packaging industry.

  1. What is your current role? Company?

As a Senior Researcher for the WestRock Fiber Technology R&D group in Richmond, I work on projects related to all things pulping, bleaching, refining, wet end chemistry, and recovery.

  1. What are your job responsibilities?

I spend most of my time at our Pilot Plant designing and running experiments. These are sometimes done individually or with large, cross-functional teams. Often, projects evolve from lab level experiments and scale up to pilot level and, if successful, progress to mill implementation. I’ve also been involved with mill data analysis and other troubleshooting, as needed.

I’ve visited nearly half of the WestRock mills and many other pilot and/or converting sites for project-related work. Our group is also fortunate to host 5-6 co-ops annually, so I’ve enjoyed training and advising them on project work, as well.

  1. How did you end up in this industry?

I’ve always had an interest in science as far back as I can remember. My grandfather was a Physicist for the Navy. My Senior year in high school I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship for the chemistry department at James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia. That cemented chemistry as my field of study. JMU allowed students to get great hands on experience with almost all the equipment a student could want. I was also able get my feet wet in the research field by working on several projects both during the semesters and through summers.

After graduating, I went into the pharmaceutical industry at Wyeth. I worked as a quality control scientist in an analytical chemistry lab monitoring the contents of over the counter medications. Testing cough medicine and vitamin samples, and getting the same results day after day, was becoming too routine. Simultaneously, Pfizer announced they were purchasing Wyeth and our plant would be closing. This accelerated a career change. Luckily, I had a good friend who had recently joined MeadWestvaco. He recommended me to the research group that had several openings. I was hired into the Paper Science group and started in the pulp and paper industry. Since the merger to form WestRock, my role has expanded to support over 30 mills globally. While working with WestRock, I’ve also been able to take classes part time to obtain a graduate certificate in chemical engineering from Michigan State.

  1. What is your proudest accomplishment to date?

Being part of the project to expand capacity at our Tres Barras Mill in Brazil.

  1. What is it like being a young professional in this field?

I often hear, or say to myself, “I didn’t know there was so much that went into making paper and boxes.” There is so much information to absorb but developing a baseline understanding pays off. Within WestRock, I’m grateful to work with a lot of smart people. At any given time, I can simultaneously be working with a manager who has 30 years of experience, a recently graduated PhD, and a co-op who are all bringing great ideas and insights to a project. There are a lot of opportunities to make a change and impact in this industry. I am glad to have joined the research field because, as the paper industry continues to evolve, we’re on the front lines contributing to that growth.

  1. Do you have a mentor? If so, what’s a lesson they’ve taught you that you’d want to pass on to others?

I’ve been guided by several mentors through school and work settings. One message I have learned from mentorship, that I continue to follow, is to never stop asking questions and always challenge yourself.

  1. If you could give advice to other young professionals in our industry, what would it be?

There are so many things you can do and directions to grow within this industry, so always consider saying “yes” to taking on new projects, assignments, or challenges.

  1. What’s your favorite thing to do outside of work?

All things cars and auto racing. My dad, brothers, uncles, and cousins are constantly buying, selling, fixing, or racing something. I have 6 cars at the house currently, all which run, drive, and are road legal (often an accomplishment). My uncle races sportscars with NASA/SCCA and my granddad did some circle track racing back in the 40’s and 50’s. I hope to make the jump to a dedicated caged racecar shortly. I also greatly enjoy traveling (my wife is a ‘travelholic’), hiking, and playing with my dog, Kimi.

  1. What’s one thing you would like to, or have already gotten, out of being involved in TAPPI?

I have enjoyed the opportunity to learn from so many who came before me in the industry.

Just for fun:

  • What’s your favorite food?

All things Mexican and hot peppers.

  • What’s one movie, show, or song you never get tired of watching/listening to? Why do you think it resonates with you so much?

I wouldn’t say I can pick a favorite, but I do like a number of Mel Brooks movies, I usually don’t turn away from Robin Hood: Men in Tights anytime I see it on.

  • Anything else you want to tell us?

I’d like to shout out to all the members of the Gulf Coast Local Section of TAPPI which I’ve been involved with for the past 3 years. Also, thank you to TAPPI for helping share knowledge in this industry!


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