Schulich prof humbled by prestigious national award

U.T. Sundararaj accepts the Chemical Institute of Canada’s Macromolecular
U.T. Sundararaj accepts the Chemical Institute of Canada’s Macromolecular Science and Engineering Award in Winnipeg. Chemical Institute of Canada
U.T. Sundararaj named Chemical Institute of Canada’s Macromolecular Science and Engineering Award winner

In the eyes of Dr. Uttandaraman (U.T.) Sundararaj , there’s no such thing as a "dumb question."

In his nearly 15 years as a professor at the Schulich School of Engineering , his reaction to hearing that someone is worried about asking a certain question has remained the same. "There’s only one stupid question and that’s the one you don’t ask and keep to yourself," says Sundararaj, PhD. "I tell them that everyone else is learning from their question -- and they are learning -- and that’s what the whole education process is all’about."

His own curiosity and willingness to ask questions has helped lead the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering professor to a decorated education and research career.

The recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, Sundararaj recently accepted the Macromolecular Science and Engineering Award from the Chemical Institute of Canada at a ceremony in Winnipeg.

The award is presented to an individual who has made a distinguished contribution to macromolecular science and engineering. Sundararaj says it was a humbling experience to be recognized for his work in polymer materials.

The right combination

Ever since he was 15, Sundararaj knew he wanted to be an engineer.

Over the next few years, his love evolved into the world of polymers, which he says encompasses many things include plastics, rubbers, elastomers, thermosets and more.

Sundararaj’s specialty is multi-phased polymer materials, which has led to research and development opportunities with companies like General Electric and DuPont.

"There is so much potential to create new materials," Sundararaj says. "There’s a lot of engineering required to make the materials and it’s very challenging as the math and science isn’t that simple."

He says different combinations of materials yield varying results when it comes to properties like weight, strength, stretchability and durability. Sundararaj’s goal is to create materials that are ductile and lightweight, and his curiosity is what allows him to keep trying new things every day.

Success brings more success

Sundararaj hopes this curiosity rubs off on his students.

A Teaching Leadership Award winner in 2019, he puts a lot of emphasis on active and experiential learning, as he believes those are the keys to students getting engaged in the learning process while grasping the concepts he’s teaching.

"I encourage them to ask a lot of questions and, when they do, that’s kind of how I can see that they’re learning," Sundararaj says.

"We have to open up the opportunities for them to try and feel comfortable in the space that they’re in."

He says nothing gives him more job satisfaction than seeing students understand the concepts, then turning around and becoming successful in their own careers with the basics he taught them.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

While winning the Macromolecular Science and Engineering Award can be seen as a "lifetime achievement" recognition of sorts, Sundararaj says he is far from finished in his teaching and research work.

He has several projects underway, including on polymer nanotechnology as well as electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding, but Sundararaj’s main passion at the moment is plastic circularity.

While governments at all levels have been pushing for an end to single-use plastics, Sundararaj says companies are now taking a keen interest and are excited about what the University of Calgary is already doing in this field.

"It’s essentially trying to make plastics so we don’t have waste plastics going out," he says. "Any kind of plastic we make, we have to find a way to create it, use it and then bring it back and remake it so that we’re not creating all kinds of plastic waste everywhere."

Learn more about Sundararaj’s research here.