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College of Science News

Dias looking forward to challenges as new chemistry chair

Professor Rasika Dias

UT Arlington's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has come a long way in the 18 years since Rasika Dias joined the faculty. He's played a major role in its growth and increasingly prominent reputation. Dias remembers the days when the department was small and its facilities were relegated to a few floors of Science Hall. Today, the department shares space in several buildings, including the gleaming, state-of-the-art Chemistry and Physics Building.

Dias takes pride in what the department has achieved and in its ability to attract top-rank faculty, educate students who are well-prepared for careers in the field, and conduct important research. He is also excited about the possibilities as he prepares to assume the duties of department chair. He will formally take over the position from Purnendu "Sandy" Dasgupta on September 1.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge and I'm fully committed to doing whatever I can to try to take the department to the next level," Dias said. "Sandy has done a wonderful job the past four years and I just want to build on the positive things he has done."

The department has already taken great strides in helping lead UT Arlington toward its goal of becoming a Tier I research university, and Dias plans to continue that push as chair.

"The College of Science is pleased that Dr. Dias has agreed to lead the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry," College of Science Dean Pamela Jansma said. "He is an internationally respected scientist and thoughtful colleague who will continue the tradition of excellence of his predecessor, Dr. Sandy Dasgupta."

Dias, whose interest is in inorganic chemistry, said the strength of the department lies in its faculty, and he has been a prominent member of that group. In addition to his teaching, Dias leads a research group which does extensive work in catalysis - developing molecules that facilitate or accelerate useful chemical processes and by shedding light on transient and often reactive species that are present as intermediates in metal mediated reactions - as well as in light-emitting materials (useful for display devices like TVs, developing sensors for harmful chemicals, and taking images of abnormal tissues) and in the development of chemicals which can be used as disinfectants and preservatives in the medical field. The development and use of novel ligands - molecules that bind to metal ions to form larger metal complexes with desired features - is central to the group's research.

Service is another key component of leadership for faculty, and Dias has done more than his share on this front. He serves on a host of committees, panels and editorial advisory boards of leading journals, and he has directed or organized numerous fairs, symposiums and other activities for everyone from area high school students to gatherings of national organizations.

His work hasn't gone unnoticed. Dias has received numerous awards, including the 2009 Wilfred T. Doherty Award from the Dallas-Fort Worth section of the American Chemical Society. The award, for significant achievement in research, teaching and service in the chemical field, is the highest sectional honor bestowed by the society. He also was named winner of the 2009 ACS Southwest Regional Award, becoming just the fourth member of the DFW ACS section to receive the honor.

Dias also received the UT Arlington Outstanding Research Achievement Award in 2007, and the Welch Foundation Lectureship (2004-05). Other accolades he has earned include UT Arlington College of Science Outstanding Teacher (2000-01) and Outstanding Academic Advisor (2003).

"He is an exceptional scientist in the prime of his productive career," Dasgupta said. "He's very cool-headed, even in trying times. The department will enjoy the benefits of his leadership at a time of growth; we are so fortunate to have him."

Dias was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and he grew up and was educated there. As a youth, he had dreams of becoming a physician, but once in college, he became intrigued with chemistry and the opportunities it offered. He also relished the chance to work in a lab and conduct research which could lead to technological and medicinal advances. He earned a bachelor's degree with honors in chemistry from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, in 1983. He came to the United States and enrolled at the University of California, Davis, earning his Ph.D. in chemistry there in 1988. He then worked for just under three years at the DuPont Central Research and Development facility in Wilmington, Delaware, as a visiting research scientist.

In 1992, Dias - who has two college-age children with his wife, Tamara - joined the faculty at UT Arlington, and has been here since, helping build the chemistry department from a small unit to one with an international reputation.

"At that time (in 1992), the facilities for chemistry here were poor," he said. "We have gone from a small department to one which is already close to Tier I level. The faculty has made a huge difference. We have a highly dedicated, hard-working, and excellent group of scientists. Our senior faculty already compare very favorably to that of UT Austin or anywhere else. Our junior faculty members are already doing great things and continue helping move us toward the Tier I goal."

Dias says the great increase in research funding to faculty members and the number of top-quality journal articles (including many featured on journal covers and in news stories), books published by faculty members, and faculty activities on editorial boards of internationally reputed journals are indicators of the department's growing prominence in Texas, the United States and around the world.

When Dasgupta decided to step down from the department chair post, Dias was at first hesitant to offer himself as a candidate. The job requires a great deal of time relegated to things like department budgets, approving expenses, recruiting faculty, actively lobbying for more funds and supporting faculty and staff.

After talking with Jansma and Dasgupta, and a unanimous vote by the department faculty supporting him, Dias decided to accept the job and embrace its challenges wholeheartedly.

"I saw there was a need there and I want to do whatever I can to help the department," Dias said. "We've brought the department up and it's like our 'baby,' so it's important for me to see that it continues to have people who are committed to improving it as we've had in the past. It's a balancing act, trying to take care of the duties of a chair, and also the teaching and research. It won't be easy, especially under the present economic environment. However, with the help of good faculty colleagues we have in the department and the talented staff, I am confident that we will achieve what we desire."

Said Jansma, "His willingness to take on the leadership role reflects his commitment to the department, the college, and UT Arlington. We are deeply appreciative of his service. I look forward to working with Dr. Dias as we collectively move toward our Tier 1 goals."

Some of Dias' goals include adding outstanding faculty, attracting top-rank graduate students, and increasing resources such as chemistry clinics and outside support to assist undergraduate students and lower drop-failure rates, as well as continuing to increase the amount of research money coming into the department. Hosting seminars and conferences, improving the departmental webpage, and continuing to have faculty publishing in top journals are things he wants to encourage as ways to showcase the department to the outside world, Dias said.

He also wants to continue helping students. Seeing a student's face light up when they learn a new concept is among his greatest pleasures as a professor, he said.

"It's really a good thing to see where we've come from years ago to where we are now," Dias said. "Now, we're doing so much top research, publishing in top journals, and graduating outstanding students. I'm excited to have a chance to ensure that we keep doing that, and trying to take the next step of getting even better."