He was the kid who was always curious about a variety of science disciplines, from astronomy to biology to chemistry. The kid who would perform dissections on things he probably shouldn’t have and who couldn’t help himself when it came to experimenting with things that caused any type of chemical reaction.
“I would occasionally mix bleach and ammonia together and really try to understand why my parents told me not to mix them together,” quips the corporate scientist with 3M Oral Care. “I recognized that there was something going on when you combined these household cleaning chemicals, and I was fascinated.”
After 34 years as a 3M scientist, that sense of curiosity is still his driving force. Today, Joe is considered an expert in photocurable systems, nanotechnology, glass ionomer materials and hard-tissue adhesives. He played a key role in revolutionizing the dental industry by improving light-activated, tooth-colored restorative filling materials that are replacing conventional metal fillings.
It all began back in 1983. That’s when Joe joined 3M after graduating from Northwestern University with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and a background in light-activated materials. At that time, 3M knew there was great potential to enhance the early work that had been done in the area of dental restoratives that were activated by light – where light is used to harden the materials dentists use to restore teeth like adhesives, fillings, sealants, crowns and bridges.
3M hired Joe to create proprietary, light-activated chemistries that could cure – or harden – restorative materials faster and deeper compared to the existing materials. Joe’s bosses also charged him with using a safer light source than ultraviolet to do the curing.
Over the course of a couple years, Joe and his colleagues delivered. They invented a novel light-activated chemistry that would revolutionize the dental industry. The proprietary system used non-ultraviolet light in the blue part of the visible spectrum to activate and transform the materials from monomers to polymers, turning the sculptable paste into a solid, durable tooth-like material. They also co-invented a groundbreaking way to bond these esthetic filling materials to the tooth structure that remains the industry standard.
“The oral environment is one of the most challenging environments for materials,” says Joe. “There’s bacteria, water and a host of other factors to contend with, like alcohol, coffee, tea, hot and cold foods – and constant chewing forces being applied. So you have to create materials that will survive that extreme set of conditions for an extended period of time. We had to ensure the materials could survive those challenges while also maintaining a strong bond with the tooth, and not degrading over time.”
The proprietary, light-curing and polymer-chemistry technology Joe and his colleagues created ultimately found its way into many of 3M’s dental products, including composites, adhesives and sealants. The chemistry has stood the test of time: The dental world still uses many of the same principles Joe and his colleagues developed in the 1980s.
Interestingly, the technology also quickly made its way into products outside of the dental realm. Although the team made these chemistry discoveries in 1985 and filed several patents, Joe’s very first 3M patent, surprisingly, was issued not in dental, but in coated abrasives.
That’s the thing about 3M. Here, technologies and technological capabilities have no boundaries or barriers. 3M’s highly collaborative culture and long-standing commitment to open innovation is what fuels the cross-pollination of ideas across its technology platforms – from adhesives to medical technologies to fiber optics to light management.
It’s what makes 3M such an interesting place to work for scientists like Joe. Though he holds nearly 100 issued U.S. patents for 3M, has authored nearly 100 scientific publications and was recognized as the 2016 American Chemical Society Industrial Polymer Scientist – a national award that recognizes outstanding fundamental contributions and achievements in the field of polymer chemistry. Joe is quick to point out that his success is closely tied to collaboration.
“There’s an absolute wealth of technology within 3M, and the technology is not owned by anyone – it’s owned by the company,” he says. “It’s something we willingly share, something we all try to build upon. Our platforms are constantly evolving. And we have a tremendous breadth of outstanding scientists and talent and skill sets. When you bring these people together in a collaborative manner like we do – I believe that we can solve virtually any problem that doesn’t defy some law of nature.”
Photo: Joe Oxman (right), chats with fellow Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge mentor, 3M R&D scientist Jim Jonza