3Q: Jen O'Brien

Before coming to MIT, I was a custom furniture maker, having eventually found an obsession with woodworking several years after graduating from MassArt with a BFA in painting.

My childhood dream of being an illustrator/animator never really died, and I think I can still draw a mean portrait - but out of necessity it had to adapt to more practical purposes. I never had the ego required for a career in art. Custom design/build woodworking is a very practical skill that produces functional objects, and is not as excruciatingly personal as making art, so it was a perfect career for me to fall into.  That experience transitioned well into my current position as a shop instructor- I've always been a pretty unrepentant generalist.

The other, equally fundamental driving force in my life has always been playing music. There were a few off years in my mid-twenties, but otherwise I've been singing/playing music in some form since I was a toddler.

I practice piano daily, taught myself to play fiddle and (outside of a pandemic) play bluegrass/old time socially with friends at least once weekly. I cannot wait to go back to that, when it's safe for us all to crowd together at a pub to play music again. When I was younger, I used to sing classical music, seriously enough that at the time, I was sure that by my forties I'd be in an opera company. That didn't pan out, but not from any lack of general motivation. (I have an embarrassing collection of instruments I don't yet know how to play–and it's likely to keep growing.)

I've also always been drawn to Japan- the place, the culture, the language, history, wildlife, and so on - woke up one day suddenly determined to study the language seriously, and by now have been doing that for the better part of 12 years.  I travel there whenever possible, mostly to the Kansai area.

My life is full of random detail–I was a Boston bike messenger for about 6 years. I've sung on stage (in a chorus) at Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops.  I was a spelling bee kid, briefly. I'm a terrible but stubborn jogger. I've been a vegetarian since 1995. I've been learning to forage mushrooms for a couple of years now (I already have a fair amount of plant ID ability under my belt). I take building/making workshops when on vacation like summer camp for adults. My sister considers me a limitless source of trivia and answers to questions from left field.

I haven't been a full-time student in many years, but will never stop taking on learning experience. I don't think I know how to live without it. 

Jennifer O'Brien is a Shop Manager and Technical Instructor in the MIT Department of Architecture. Jen’s story is part of a series of profiles meant to reveal the incredible stories, talents, interests, and backgrounds of our MIT Architecture staff.


1. Forest/stone Okunoin, June 24, 2017, Wakayama Ken, Japan. Courtesy of Jen O'Brien.

2. "Porch pick" by Helen Dana La Fleur, April 19, 2015. Courtesy of Jen O'Brien.