Department of Chemistry

View from the Chair

Professor Surya Prakash took the helm as USC Chemistry chairman in mid-August and sat down to discuss his new role and aspirations as well as his 40-year legacy in research and teaching in the department.

Q: What brings you to this new role?

A: I've been asked to be department chair many times for the past ten to fifteen years. Every three years they were asking me to be the chair and I used to shoo them away. This time I decided to do it.

Q: What makes now the right time?

A: It's a leadership role that many of my colleagues have taken before and done a very good job. It's my time to do it. I've been here for 40 years at USC so I had to do it [laughter] once in a lifetime, I suppose.

Q: What are your first goals starting out?

A: In my opinion, the chemistry department at USC is one of the top science departments in Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. We're only a small faculty, 32 regular tenure track faculty; we have done an outstanding job building it. We have two homegrown Nobel laureates, which is a significant achievement, and also our faculty have won all kinds of awards and other external recognitions. So, I want to continue achieving and maintaining excellence and building on that - I've been here for a very long time so I have seen the progression of the department.

So what we do so well is we do fundamental science, we also develop technology that we try to commercialize. The chemistry department customers, I call them, are our students. So we basically need to take care of them, nurture them and keep them excited. Especially chemistry at the undergraduate level. When they come in they're scared of chemistry. If chemistry is taught properly -teaching contextually, I call it - it is one of the most beautiful artistic sciences. It is art, because with atoms we build molecular structures. it is like drawing stuff with pixels and we need to excite our students and I think it can be done.

Because chemistry influences so many areas, we call chemistry the central science. It impacts everything, you know. If you look around, everything around you is chemistry.

Q: What does the job of department chair entail, especially at a time of national political uncertainty over issues like immigration, international student access to U.S. universities, and proposed spending cuts to federal agencies that fund key department research?

A: You must direct the department in the right direction. Times are changing in terms of the political climate in the United States. The funding situation might change because of proposed federal spending cuts to NSF, NIH, DOE and other agencies. Also, the West Coast of the U.S. is a crossroad to Asia and we get a lot of students from abroad. All federal policy changes have the potential to affect our own future as a chemistry department, so we need to be very alert about unfolding issues in Washington, D.C.

Because of the political situation, I'm concerned that in the future we may not get the quality foreign student we now get from abroad. Many students we have welcomed at USC may not be welcome in the United States going forward, and that's scary because USC has one of the largest foreign student populations in the nation. We have students from close to 130 countries coming here. The United States has prospered, especially in science and technology, because of the immigrants coming from all over the world. They are the backbone, right?

So, we need to make sure we stay at the top as a nationally prominent university, that we don't lose out. That's the big picture. I don't want to be a doomsayer, but we want to have our eyes wide open and we need to survive. Our faculty not only do very good research at the graduate and post-graduate levels but also run high-impact teaching at graduate and undergraduate levels. The quality of our pedagogic programs brings revenue and resources from the university to the department. Our previous chairs have done a wonderful job. But we need to continue doing it and because of the uncertain political times, we need to be vigilant.

Q: Will your role as director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Institute change amid your new responsibilities as department chair?

A: I'll still be director of the Loker Institute as I have done since 2010. One of the pioneers of the Loker Institute, George Olah, passed away in March. He was director and then he became founding director. In 2010, he relinquished his directorship and I took over. That's why have I decided to continue; I promised George that I would remain as director. And I don't want there to be a vacuum at Loker.

Q: So, you will wear several department hats.

A: Yes. Fortunately, another faculty member, Professor Sri Narayan, has taken up the role of scientific co-director within Loker. I wanted two people to serve as vice chairs. Now, Professor Peter Qin is in charge of undergraduate and graduate education. And Professor Richard Brutchey will continue as vice chair on space issues and also on development issues like raising funds for the department from private philanthropy. The safety of our operation is another important area. Ralf Haiges, who is a research faculty member, will chair a committee in charge of lab safety, student safety, chemical safety.

Their help allows me to focus more on hiring and recruiting as we search for new faculty. We have a broad search underway for one or two young assistant or associate professors. Since chemistry is a changing and evolving field we need to also broaden our approach, always. Sustainable energy, global warming, carbon management and global health care are challenging issues that chemistry needs to tackle. We need to also continue building on existing strengths in research and also teaching. We're always looking for new expertise and emerging fields.


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