Ongoing research efforts, leadership for an international research competition and a selfless disposition helped make Fehmi Damkaci, professor and chair of chemistry, this year’s winner of the President’s Award for Scholarly and Creative Activity.

In nominating Damkaci, mathematics professor Ampalavanar Nanthakumar noted the selfless work Damkaci has performed for SUNY Oswego students and colleagues conducting research, as well as the thousands of high-school students over the years who attended the annual on-campus GENIUS Olympiad Damkaci founded and has coordinated.

Nanthakumar said that Damkaci regularly involves students and departmental colleagues in joint research projects, many leading to published work. Damkaci, who holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park, is an in-demand expert who reviews about 10 articles per year for chemistry journals and is often asked to speak at conferences and other institutions.

“His former students are either working as scientists in the industry or are enrolled in graduate programs in chemistry throughout the country,” Nanthakumar wrote. “Fehmi as a person is very friendly and very sincere in his dealings with everybody.”

As a researcher, Damkaci has brought in aroundn $3 million in external research grants for the institution, while raising SUNY Oswego’s profile with the GENIUS Olympiad inviting and hosting research for high-schoolers from around the country and across the globe.

While on hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, GENIUS Olympiad traditionally provides opportunities to students from more than 70 countries and most U.S. states with as many as 1,400 attendees, offering experiences that greatly impact student futures: Nanthakumar recounted students for whom winning a medal at the Olympiad helped them earn admission to universities like Stanford and Columbia. The competition also has convinced international science students to attend SUNY Oswego.

‘Second to none’

“Working with Fehmi sparked my passion in organic chemistry scientific research, and inspired me to obtain my Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Boston College,” wrote 2013 Oswego graduate Adam Szymaniak, who is now a research scientist in medicinal chemistry at Enanta Pharmaceuticals, which focuses on viral infections. 

“I can confidently say that without my experiences with Fehmi as a professor, research advisor and friend, that I would not be where I am today,” wrote Szymaniak, who co-authored two publications with Damkaci, including one on a synthetic diabetes drug, and also performed research with him over three summers. “Fehmi’s enthusiasm for chemistry really inspired me in the research I was doing, and motivated me to work hard. Fehmi was always willing to help us with our research and problem solving. However, now as a research scientist, I can say that more importantly, Fehmi allowed us to be independent researchers.”

Even after his experience working with other prestigious institutions, Szymaniak noted: “I can say that Fehmi’s work with undergraduate researchers to promote careers in science is second to none.”

“I was impressed from the beginning by Dr. Damkaci’s vitality in research projects, his talent and energy in securing grants, his positive and influential presence in the Chemistry Department even before he became the chair of the department,” wrote Carolina Ilie, a professor of physics. “He has maintained an active research group consisting of undergraduates, graduate students and visiting scholars and he has sponsored over 55 presentations at national, regional and local conferences, 31 of which being student presentations.”

‘Great leader’

Damkaci, Ilie added, “has the qualities of a great leader – he has the talent of inspiring people, he knows how to build consensus, he is transparent and fair, he has splendid communication skills and he has a vision for the department (or any committee he leads), and the energy to implement it.”

“He has published eleven articles since 2006 in high-quality journals. Nearly all of these publications include students as co-authors,” wrote Casey Raymond, associate professor of chemistry and acting director of the college’s Honors Program. Raymond added that Damkaci has supervised more than 35 undergraduate research students and eight graduate research students over the past 18 years, showing that loyalty to student growth is an important part to the process.

“Dr. Damkaci’s involvement of students in his research is evident from the presentation and publication record, but it is important to also recognize that many projects require multiple students’ efforts over a few years and some projects never prove successful,” Raymond explained. “He is dedicated to working with each student regardless of the successes in the project. He has extended his efforts by including high school students in research projects during the summer.”

Educators from other institutions wrote in support of Damkaci’s organic chemistry research accomplishments, especially given all that he coordinates on the Oswego campus, and willingness to mentor students at other universities.

Damkaci’s accomplishments have earned other honors over the years, including a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Faculty Service in 2019, the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018, the Provost’s Award for Mentoring in Scholarly and Creative Activity in 2015 and International Center of Syracuse’s International Educator of the Year Award in 2014.

The President’s Award for Scholarly and Creative Activity is designed to recognize a career of significant accomplishment in scholarly or creative activity within one’s field of study.