California Professor of the Year
With Tom Onak, the chemistry has always been perfect - he is a professor who is universally liked and admired by all with whom he comes in contact, and he genuinely reciprocates those feelings toward his students and colleagues.
In October, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced the selection of Thomas P. Onak, Cal State L.A. professor of chemistry and member of the faculty since 1959, as 1995 California Professor of the Year.
"I am deeply honored, and proud for CSLA," said Onak of the recognition. Reflecting on the broader implications of such an award to a Cal State L.A. professor, he added, "The honor is particularly special because our faculty has always prided itself on its devotion to our students."
The campus community was elated over Onak's selection. Describing Onak as "one of our most respected educators and professionals - a leader in his field and an exemplary role model," President James M. Rosser said, "This award is a fitting tribute to Tom Onak's work at Cal State L.A. and his contributions to the field of chemistry."
"Thomas Onak was a super-star in a superior department when I became his dean 24 years ago, and he has continued to augment that outstanding record with each year that passes," said Dean Donald O. Dewey, School of Natural and Social Sciences. "He is an extraordinary man and an extraordinary teacher of undergraduate students," Dewey said.
Reflecting on Onak's "mmense contribution to CSLA and the entire CSU," Scott Grover, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, called Onak "a source of pride for our department and a model for what can be accomplished in our institution."
What makes Onak such a successful educator or, as one student put it, "a priceless commodity"? The committee that selected Onak for the 1995 award wrote in its assessment:
"Focusing his personal research on carborane chemistry and the study of the element boron, Onak encourages his students to delve into areas where little previous research exists and to treat learning chemistry like learning a language.
"Students view Onak as a mentor and role model, and particularly respect his mature, caring and inquisitive attitude. His innovative classroom techniques have earned Onak systemwide and campus teaching awards."
A product of the state system (Onak earned his B.A. at San Diego State University and his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley), Onak has a high regard for his students.
"Thirty-six years at CSLA have given me the chance to contribute to the education of thousands of students in a fashion that has pleased and rewarded me," he says. "The students have been marvelous - it's been my experience that we have a special breed of students. The enthusiasm they show makes my teaching all the easier." And, he adds, with his typical blend of good-humored energy, "Mentally, the students keep me as young as when I first arrived on campus!"
Onak's regard for his students is evident: he makes sure that as many of them as possible are involved in his own research projects. Remarkably, more than half of his 130-plus publications list his research students - many of whom are undergraduates - as co-authors.
"I try hard to find ways to interact with the students in a one-on-one setting," he says of his successful teaching techniques. "There are obviously a number of different ways to get students involved in their academic studies and to attempt to reach their potential. Hopefully the methods I've used to get at their interests have enriched their lives."
Teaching general chemistry courses for freshmen, special courses for nursing and nutrition students, organic chemistry classes for majors and special topics courses for graduate students, Onak has been able to reach a wide cross-section of CSLA's student population.
"I care very much for our students, and for the diversity that one finds at Cal State L.A. I remember with great pleasure many of those who took my classes in my formative teaching years. A good number of these students, I know firsthand, have gone on to professional schools and are themselves contributing to the education of students or to their professions.
"It's satisfying to feel that I have had a chance to offer them as much time and energy as I physically and mentally could give. My life has been enriched by working with these inquisitive minds."
Onak's honors and professional achievements in his field are numerous and significant. He conducted research at the University of Cambridge, England as a 1965-66 Fulbright Scholar. Cal State L.A. honored him as an Outstanding Professor for 1968-69, and from 1973 to 1978, he was the recipient of the Public Health Service Research Career Development Award.
In 1990, Onak was the first faculty member at a publicly-supported university to receive the American Chemical Society Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution. In 1992, he received the Award for Distinguished Achievements in Boron Science, and in 1994, Cal State L.A. nominated him for the California State University Trustees Outstanding Professor Award, a systemwide honor for which he was selected.
He has to his credit more than 40 grants that support research in many pioneering areas. The grants, from such agencies as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, total more than $2.5 million; a major portion of these have supported undergraduate and graduate students during their studies at CSLA.
Dean Dewey points out that all this "is only a hint of the breadth of his interests." A true "Renaissance man," Onak balances a love of the arts with his passion for the sciences: he plays the piano and is a professional oboist who performed with the San Diego Symphony while a student. Dewey also notes that Onak is "a competitive golfer and an expert cook, as perhaps might be expected of a phenomenal chemist." Onak and his wife, Sharon, share their South Pasadena home with their "two beautiful Persian cats."