Pudupadi (Sundar) Sundararajan had an unrivalled knowledge of polymer chemistry, an impressive scientific pedigree, and an unwavering commitment to helping students find free food.
“Grad students would arrive at a conference and say, ‘Okay, let’s go find Sundar,’” recalls Carleton University chemist Seán Barry. “He was serious about it. He would sit them down and run through all the free places to eat.”
As colleagues and former students at Carleton University mourn the passing of a professor who went out of his way to help students in both small and significant ways, they are also celebrating his substantial contributions to chemistry.
An expert in the structure, modelling, and morphology of polymer composites with small molecules and carbon nanotubes, Sundararajan received the Macromolecular Science and Engineering Award of the Chemical Institute of Canada and the Materials Chemistry Award of the Canadian Materials Society.
He authored more than 150 papers, published Physical Aspects of Polymer Self-Assembly, and served as president of the Canadian Chemical Society and chair of the Chemical Institute of Canada.
Sundararajan understood better than many how a good mentor could make a difference in a scientist’s career. Plucked from amongst the best and brightest graduates of the Ramachandran Institute at the University of Madras, India, Sundararajan set off in 1969 for the Université de Montréal to study the molecular structure and morphology of polysaccharides as a postdoctoral student under noted chemist Robert Marchessault.
He went on to spend two years as a postdoctoral fellow under Nobel-winning polymer chemist Paul Flory at Stanford University before returning to the Université de Montréal’s department of chemistry. This ultimately led to a senior management position at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, where he worked for 25 years before coming to Carleton in 2000. Once back in academia, Sundararajan relished the chance to give back by guiding students’ careers.
“He really went out of his way to make introductions and help students make their way,” recalls his former fourth-year polymer chemistry student Chris Rowley, now an associate professor at Carleton. “He was kind of a Godfather figure in my career.”
Carleton University chemist Edward Lai remembers meeting Sundararajan for the first time at his inaugural talk to faculty and marvelling at the depth and breadth of his knowledge. After spending most of his career as an industrial chemist, he made a seamless transition to academia.
“Academics like to ask sharp questions, but he wasn’t bothered by them,” recalls Lai. “He used the language of physical chemistry to discuss polymers and had such a broad knowledge base for top-notch research. He just had a beautiful mind.”
Barry says he was also struck by how well Sundararajan adapted to academia, even to the point to mastering the often byzantine workings of university life.
“He was a real rules guy,” says Barry. “He was grad administrator of the Ottawa-Carleton Chemistry Institute and when he handed it over to me, it was running like a well-oiled machine. It seems silly to say 78 is young, but it was young for Sundar. He had a youthful life spark.”
Pudupadi Sundararajan passed away in September at the age of 78.