OSWEGO — Fehmi Damkaci, professor and chair of SUNY Oswego’s chemistry department and founder and director of the GENIUS Olympiad environmental competition in Oswego for high school students from scores of countries around the world for nearly nine years, has earned the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Faculty Service.
Letters poured in to the selection committee in support of the award for Damkaci, whose service to science, technology, engineering and math education — locally, regionally, nationally and internationally — extends from pre-K students all the way through SUNY Oswego’s master’s degree program in chemistry.
Supporters included a wide array of people from SUNY Oswego’s faculty, staff and students; the state Education Department; the Syracuse Academy of Science charter school; teachers and students from other colleges and countries; former GENIUS Olympiad competitors and mentors; biochemistry graduates of Oswego; and many more.
Themes emerge from the letters of recommendation: In his calm, pleasant, tireless way, Damkaci has touched the lives of students and their mentors here and worldwide, spread awareness of SUNY Oswego’s mission and values, and awakened many to the fact that solutions for sustainability issues are within the reach of all and a responsibility for all.
Yahya Ibrahima Ndiaye and Asya Kadic, two of the international students who’ve enrolled at SUNY Oswego as a direct result of their high school participation in the well-attended GENIUS (Global Environmental Issues/U.S.) competition were among those recommending Damkaci for the Chancellor’s Award.
Ndiaye, from Senegal, competed in the 2017 GENIUS Olympiad, then began at Oswego in the college’s Intensive English Program. Following his successful transition in the language, he has enrolled as a first-year biology major this fall.
“As I would like to be a determinant person for the change of Africa, this Olympiad opened a way to learn in the U.S. and get a valuable diploma,” Ndiaye wrote. “This position could be a real force for change in our countries … I am very grateful to Dr. Damkaci for his efforts during and after GENIUS Olympiad. He continues to help me while I am at SUNY Oswego.”
Kadic, a native of Turkey, senior biology major and two-year volunteer for GENIUS, wrote, “Dr. Damkaci and his team have sleepless nights starting almost a week before, during and after (the Olympiad). Volunteering in the event helped me to see personally how much time and energy it takes to run such a big event, because it gets incredibly busy and he manages to help the participants with their problems and please everybody.”
Those recommending Damkaci for the award among the college’s faculty and staff usually started off their letters in narrative fashion, then resorted to listing the many service contributions of the native of Turkey, who joined SUNY Oswego in 2006 after completing his doctorate in chemistry at University of Maryland and his postdoctoral fellowship at Boston College’s T. Ross Kelly Laboratory:
* Besides chairing chemistry, teaching such subjects as “Organic Chemistry” and “Chemistry and Public Concern,” mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and organizing GENIUS Olympiad, Damkaci represents the chemistry department on the Faculty Assembly, chairs faculty search committees (eight over a three-year period), serves as a board member for the college’s Institute for Global Engagement, advises the Turkish Student Club and regularly serves as host to international visiting scholars.
* His past positions outside the classroom have included director of the chemistry graduate program, associate dean of graduate studies, co-chair of the years-long project to modernize the college’s general education curriculum, faculty director of the college’s Possibility Scholars Program for promising yet socioeconomically disadvantaged STEM majors, and former member of the Scholarly and Creative Activities Committee — a grant-making organization for student and faculty research and creative projects.
* At the local level, Damkaci talks about chemistry as he holds ice cream days for pre-K students on campus and brings hands-on activities to K-6 students to engage them with and attract them to STEM; provides summer research opportunities for high school students; and has served as an American Chemical Society coach to a local chemistry teacher, helping her secure a grant for a high school laboratory.
* Regionally, he is founder and president of the non-profit Terra Science and Education Foundation; has served on the board and as board president of the Syracuse Academy of Science charter school; has worked with local volunteers to organize science fairs and teacher conferences in the Potsdam, Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse areas; and, through Terra, provided about $50,000 in 2018 to build infrastructure for increased STEM opportunities in public schools.
* Created the GENIUS Olympiad from scratch in 2010, spinning off a Summer Science Immersion program that Damkaci helped create here in 2009 with the Syracuse Academy of Science. GENIUS, scheduled for a ninth consecutive year June 17 to 22 at SUNY Oswego, has grown each year in participation and scope. Beginning as a science and art competition, it now attracts more than 1,100 students and their mentors from up to 70 countries and nearly 40 states, and promotes a global understanding of environmental issues and the achievement of sustainability through basic science, arts, creative writing, engineering, design and business development.
“This project has put Oswego on the map internationally to prospective students,” wrote Rameen Mohammadi, associate provost for undergraduate and special programs. “I am working with two of those students now who … would have never known about SUNY Oswego if it weren’t for GENIUS Olympiad. I am proud of the work Fehmi has done and a niche he created to meet the incredible desire by students all over the world to exhibit their talents and their culture.”
Cynthia Clabough, professor and chair of the art department, serves as one of many volunteer judges from around the region for GENIUS each June.
“My favorite part of the experience is meeting these young artists and listening to them explain their work,” Clabough wrote. “As many are just learning English, one of the best moments is watching their face and body relax as they end their talk and realize they’ve been understood.
“As a teacher, I have been especially impressed by the quality of work submitted. Many of the teachers accompany their students to the competition, which has allowed me to interact with faculty around our common interest — helping students succeed. The joyousness of the event is contagious.”
Andrew Szymaniak, an alumnus in biochemistry, went on to a 2018 Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Boston College and now works as a scientist in medicinal chemistry at Enanta Pharmaceuticals. Szymaniak wrote that he felt working with Damkaci, both as a mentee and on the GENIUS Olympiad organizing committee for three years, was a gift.
“Being able to work closely with students from different cultures was an amazing experience for me,” he wrote. “Learning about cutting-edge technologies in green research and arts was important to me, and further motivated me and cemented by decision to attend graduate school. Dr. Damkaci’s teaching and research mentorship themselves make him more than worthy of being awarded the Chancellor’s Award for faculty (service) excellence.”