When his former students organised a symposium at the University of Florida, Gainesville, last year to mark his 60th birthday, the tribute to Professor P Somasundaran read: 'Teacher, lecturer, consultant, prod, motivator, university activist, departmental chair, devil's advocate, penultimate questioner.'
'Som is all of this and much more,' said Brij M Moudgil, distinguished professor at the University.
In recognition of his work, the Columbia Alumni Association and the Asian Columbia Alumni Association presented the 2007 Columbia University Distinguished Achievement Award to Somasundaran, the LaVon Duddleson Krumb Professor at Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science. Janice Min, editor-in-chief of Us Weekly, and Margaret Fung, a co-founder and executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, were the other winners.
The award is one of the latest honours for a professor who has won almost all major awards for engineers in the United States.
The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers conferred the AIME Education Award on Dr Somasundaran, whose research in chemistry and nanotechnology have produced path-breaking results.
Helping his students to gain the ability to surpass the teacher himself is what he considers his most important contribution as a teacher. He keeps exhorting students to work hard, aim higher and think outside the box.
'If you are one among the crowd, you will not be noticed,' he tells them. 'If you want to go up you must be different and surpass the achievements of others.'
As a scientist his work to understand how certain biopolymer molecules behave at interfaces is considered a major breakthrough.
Dr Somasundaran was one of the youngest members to be elected in 1985 to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest distinction then in engineering in the US.
He was elected to the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Indian National Academy of Engineering, and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. He received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1990.
A member of the faculty of the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science since 1970, he was named La von Duddleson Krumb Professor in 1983. He was chairman of the Henry Krumb School from 1988 to 1992 and of the Department of Chemical Engineering, Material Science and Mining from 1992 to 1997. He is the director of the National Science Foundation I/UCR Center for Advanced Studies in Novel Surfactants and Langmuir Center for Colloids and Interfaces.
The author and editor of 16 books and of over 500 scientific publications, and the holder of many patents, he is the honourary editor-in-chief of the international journal Colloids and Surfaces, and the editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Surface and Colloid Science.
He has also served on Congress's 28th Environmental Advisory Committee and been a consultant to the United Nations, IBM, Duracell, Exxon, Colgate-Palmolive, Union Carbide, B F Goodrich, Honeywell and Unilever.
An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, he came to the US in the 1960s for higher studies. In 1990, the IISc appointed him the first Brahm Prakash Chair.
He has researched many critical problems at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, IISc, and the Tata Design and Research Center, Pune.
He lives in Piermont, New York, with his wife Dr Usha Somasundaran, and daughter Tamara, a student at Harvard.