A Distinguished Professor

Courtesy of University Communications

Courtesy of University Communications

When I first stepped foot into Professor Donald Blake’s office, any nerves that I had about interviewing him were immediately alleviated by the sight of his Bruce Springsteen poster, the smell of books that filled the room and the stereo in the back of the room quietly humming classic rock.

There were countless pictures of his family, a wife of 34 years and three children, and more pictures of pets and past students who had sent him photos of their accomplishments. Clinging to the pastel walls adjacent to the window at the back of Rowland Hall were more certificates and veteran awards thanking him for his service in the military.

Professor Blake is a professor of chemistry here at UC Irvine, but has also been heavily involved in atmospheric chemistry research and has had various important roles in the Chemistry Department. He recently was given an award as a “Distinguished Professor,” something that only about 2 percent of all faculty at UCI are awarded by Chancellor Drake. It stands for a professor who has achieved the highest level of scholarship over the course of their careers. With such an exclusive group, it is a great honor to receive.

After Professor Blake was drafted into the Vietnam War when he was 19 years old, he went to a community college before attending UCLA to study chemistry. After his time at UCLA, he arrived at UCI to continue his studies under Professor F. Sherwood Rowland.

Professor Blake is a cheerful man, but whenever he talked about Professor Rowland, his tone turned from upbeat and happy to somber and reserved. The pair worked together for 34 years before Professor Rowland passed March 10 of last year. Their relationship started as a mentor and changed from co-workers to the closest friends. Professor Blake was one of the few people that Professor Rowland invited with him when he won a Nobel Prize in 1995 for his work with atmospheric chemistry.

Professor Blake looked off into space when he told me about the day he tried to lecture after Rowland passed. Back in the  lecture hall of his Chemistry 1B class, he told his students that he couldn’t lecture anymore. A particularly kindhearted student came up to him at his lecture and told him, “You need a hug.” After that one hug, the rest of his 300 students lined up around the lecture hall to give him a comforting hug. It was then when his role as Professor Black shifted to just Don.

I asked him numerous times how he felt about all the honors he was receiving. But graciously, he always answered with something along the lines of how he was extremely grateful to be nominated by his peers and to have the chancellor recognize him and his accomplishments. He would often say “why me?” and name other people he felt deserved more recognition.

Blake said it was a humbling experience that made him reflect a bit on his life and achievements. UCI is lucky to have Professor Blake here, and his students are also fortunate to have a professor who wants to take the time to see each of them succeed, even after they are out of his class. Professor Blake overcame a lot of trials in his life with the help of a solid support system of coworkers and family. He showed me that I shouldn’t be scared of professors who have numerous titles and honors. As students, we sometimes forget that our professors are just normal people too who enjoy sharing about their lives in hopes that it will inspire us to continue on despite our struggles. When life hands you lemons, get a doctorate  out of it.