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You are here: ICE-HT > News-Events >STRATIS V. SOTIRCHOS (1956-2004) Memories of a Colleague and Friend
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STRATIS V. SOTIRCHOS (1956-2004)
Memories of a Colleague and Friend


AIChE 2004 Annual Meeting, Austin, TX, USA

I had the good fortune to have developed close ties with Stratis during several phases of his distinguished career. Thus, I can attempt to give a broad-brush sketch of this remarkable man, who was a valued colleague and a dear friend.

Stratis was born in the Aegean island of Mytilene, Greece, 49 years ago. He grew up on the island and studied in the local schools until the end of his secondary education. Needless to say that from the beginning his brilliance, inquisitiveness and outgoing personality made him a star student in that island community.

At the age of 18 he passed the entrance examinations to the Department of Chemical Engineering of NTUA (National Technical University of Athens).

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Stratis (circa 1976)

During those years that Department was among the most selective of Greek university schools, admitting only about 3-4% of those who dared to take the tough entrance examinations. Stratis’s academic performance in the 5 years of studies at ChemE/NTUA was distinguished in many ways. He achieved academic excellence despite the fact that his studies had a strong dose of chaotic dynamics, which was caused by his enthusiastic involvement in the student movement and the political fermentation of those times. He did graduate on schedule in June 1979, among the few at the very top of his class.

At that time I was serving as coordinator of the Graduate Student Recruitment Committee at the Chemical Engineering Department of the University of Houston, a job usually assigned to one of the relatively junior members of the faculty. Stratis was one of the graduate student candidates from Greece whom I had tried really hard to attract to UH, fortunately with success.

When Stratis arrived at UH in early September of 1979, one of the first questions that he asked me was why the Department had made him an offer despite the fact that his grades at NTUA during a couple of semesters were kind of rotten. I explained that our Department new how to interpret grade transcripts in the proper context.

Stratis started his post-graduate studies with a drive and zeal that were surprising, even in that academic environment in which the thirst for learning and the striving for academic excellence and distinction were part of the common denominator. By the end of the first week of classes Stratis started complaining about a “tight sensation” in the chest, so I had to force-march him to the university clinic for an emergency check-up, fearing that it might be something more than just anxiety. The verdict: “A severely compounded anxiety attack”.

That, however, was in the first few weeks. By the end of the first semester it was clear to all of us that Stratis was one of the most brilliant students the Department had ever had.

Personally, I had him as a student in two graduate courses, “Fluid Dynamics” and “Transport Phenomena”. Soon I started going to class with a “tight sensation” in my own chest, because Stratis had the disturbing habit of understanding much more than I told the class, and also to analyze and screen to the n-th degree each and every one of my statements. He gleefully pointed out any inadequately documented statements or lapses into fuzzy reasoning on my part. The tightness was from my constant concern that any time soon he would catch me in some error that would be catastrophic to my self-esteem. It was with a feeling of relief that I saw Stratis passing on to other courses. I did not ask, but I think that other members of the faculty had similar experiences with him.

Stratis chose as his academic advisor Neal Amundson, the legendary “Chief”. Neal had the policy of throwing his students right into shark-infested waters. To begin with, he used to ask the new student to formulate on his own a research problem worthy of a first class PhD. When any of them slipped into asking untoward questions of the type: “Where should I begin?”, or “Which is the best way to follow?”, he would invariably receive the answer: “Surprise me!”. Stratis had by then sufficient savvy not to ask such questions.

For his PhD, Stratis decided to solve a family of problems relating to the theoretical modeling of the gasification of coal in fluidized bed rectors. At the time, that was a process of primary industrial and economic interest. The degree of difficulty of the task had left the key problems in the area unsolved, despite intensive research efforts by many worthy academic and industrial groups. Stratis started by making an exhaustive deconstruction of all previous works, as well as of any other works in progress. He had fun in making exhaustive lists of the faults and limitations of each and every one of those other works. Having, thus, cleared the intellectual ground, he then proceeded to produce exemplary solutions to some of the hardest of those problems. His joint publications with Neal Amundson on those topics have been points of reference ever since. Stratis received his PhD in 1982, in the departmental-record time of just three years.

Even before completing the cycle of those works in 1982, Stratis was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Rochester. At UR Stratis developed a brilliant career as a teacher and as a researcher, attaining the rank of Full Professor in 1992. One of his most characteristic attributes was that he thought and acted as a “Citizen of the University”. I should add that it was Neal Amundson who used to stress to students as well as to colleagues the value of feeling as a Citizen of the University and acting accordingly. Stratis was one of those who took that lesson to heart.

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SVS at the University of Rochester with colleagues and students
(circa 1984).

As a teacher Stratis became a legend at Rochester for his scientific excellence, as well as for his true love of teaching and the talent to inspire students. His enthusiasm in teaching was exceptional, aided and assisted by a very powerful delivery. Vasilis Burganos, one of his ex-graduate students at UR, recalls that Stratis used to teach the class of chemical engineers in front of him, as well as a class of mechanical engineers in the next-door building, who had no difficulty in following his every word.

During his years at Rochester Stratis supervised the PhD work of several students, who are now holding important positions in industrial enterprises, universities and research institutes. His research efforts at UR concentrated mainly on physicochemical and chemical processes in porous materials, arriving eventually at thin films, nanomaterials and nanotechnology. He produced numerous excellent publications, characterized by their practical usefulness, originality, rigor, elegance, and a fruitful blend of experimental and theoretical methods and tools. Many of these publications have become points of reference for co-practitioners. I will only give a brief list of the central themes of his work at UR.

  • Continuation of his work with Neal R. Amundson on the mathematical modeling of diffusion and reaction in char particles, including pore-change and overall shrinkage effects.
  • Mathematical modeling of gas-solid reactions with a solid-phase product, including phenomena of pore closure. (With H.C. Yu.)
  • Multiplicity and stability phenomena in diffusion flames. (With H.K.D. Hsuen.)
  • Glucose diffusivity in and mathematical modeling of the growth and the microenvironment conditions in multicellular tumor spheroids. (With J.J. Casciari, and R.M. Sutherland.)
  • Mathematical modeling of adsorption and desorption of multicomponent gaseous mixtures in beds of sorbent particles. (With A. Serbezov.)
  • Fundamental studies on the removal of SO2 in limestone and limestone-derived calcine beds. (With S. Zarkanitis, E.A. Efthimiadis, and S.V. Krishnan.)
  • Theoretical prediction of the effective diffusion coefficient of porous media as a function of the pore size distribution and the pore-network topology, using a powerful combination of the Effective Medium Theory and the Smooth Field Approximation. This is an elegant piece of work that deserves a prominent place in the textbooks. (With V.N. Burganos.)
  • Mathematical modeling of the transport properties (including Knudsen, transition and ordinary diffusion coefficients) of 3-D arrays of capillaries as well as of porous structures composed of randomly oriented and possibly overlapping fibers. (With M.M. Tomadakis, V.N. Burganos, and F. Transvalidou.)
  • Experimental investigation and theoretical modeling of chemical vapor infiltration and deposition, including control of the thickness distribution of the deposited film. (With S.D. Papasouliotis, S.F. Nitodas, J.Y. Ofori, and I.M. Kostjuhin.)

In 1998 the University of Rochester gave Stratis a joint appointment as a Professor in the Department of Materials Science.

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SVS (circa 1992)

During 1997-99 our Chemical Engineering Research Institute in Patras, FORTH/ICE-HT, started a sustained effort to attract Stratis to it ranks. This effort was eventually successful and so during the last 4-5 years Stratis was a full-time Research Director in ICE-HT without, however, severing his emotional and research ties to Rochester.

Stratis’s presence at ICE-HT had profound effects. On a first level, the presence of a scientist-engineer of his caliber and talents helped to foster a climate of academic vigor, robustness and optimism. On a deeper level, his strong intellectual input catalyzed the research activities of many of his colleagues and galvanized their efforts.

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SVS (circa 2003)

Stratis had deep knowledge in a broad spectrum of scientific fields and mathematics. His incisive intellect combined with a nearly-photographic memory gave him an uncanny ability to be able to go directly to the heart of hard problems and to shed strong light on them. He was highly inventive, and he was determined always to avoid the “beaten path”. Thus, in addition to conducting his own creative and innovative research, he regularly provided valuable ideas as well as practical advice to most of his colleagues, especially the younger ones.

During his years at ICE-HT Stratis produced some excellent scientific and technological results. I will only mention two key results.

  • He developed a highly innovative theoretical simulator of the transport, adsorption, and reaction processes which are involved in the controlled chemical vapor deposition in deep pores, and other hard to treat conduits, in order to produce deposits having the desired thickness distribution.
  • He invented (as opposed to “discovered”) a novel catalytic process for the mass production of carbon nanotubes with a yield which is much higher than the closest known competitor. An intriguing feature of the new process is that it utilizes as its catalyst a waste by-product of the nickel and nickel-alloy industry.

Stratis was a very hard but fair critic. Editors of scientific journals valued his thorough, knowledgeable, incisive, and constructive reviews. Following Amundson’s lead, he considered this as a service to the profession; part of the duties of an Academic Citizen. His presence in the audience at any seminar or scientific presentation should be taken into consideration very seriously by the speaker. When the case called for it, Stratis’s criticism was immediate, spirited and right on-the-mark. He welcomed constructive criticism himself, fully knowing its value.

Despite the huge investment in time and effort which was demanded by his academic work, Stratis was an excellent family man. He and his wife, Popi, raised two wonderful sons, Vlassis and Elias. Stratis always made quality time for his two boys, giving them love, friendship, guidance and inspiration, challenges to meet, values to absorb, and instilling in them his passion for creating things and abiding by one’s duties. None of us was surprised by the way Vlassis and Elias turned out. They both passed among the first in what is nowadays the most selective university school in Greece, the Medical School of the University of Athens.

Unfortunately, Stratis left us too early. Last June he went to Brussels for a week to participate in the evaluation of several research proposals for the Commission of EU. His death, when it came, was completely unexpected and painfully arbitrary. At about 8:30 on the morning of Sunday, June 13, Stratis was on his way to meet two friends at their hotel in Brussels, in order to share with them a cab ride to the airport, on their return trip to Greece. Stratis was carrying his luggage and stood for a few moments on the side-walk of a round-about to get his bearings in the not-so-familiar to him part of the city, when a heavily drunken man drove his car at a high speed right into him.

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The site of the accident

The police think that Stratis died instantly.

The driver was 42 years old, a cook by profession, and he also had a wife and two children.

We can only express our deep sorrow and condolences to Stratis’s Family for their immense loss.

Speaking for our Institute, I simply say what we all know: that it will be a very long time before we manage to recover from this loss, and then only partially.

In order to honor Stratis’s memory, the Institute has resolved to create an international award for excellence in chemical engineering research with the name “Stratis V. Sotirchos Lectureship”.

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Stratis’s wife, Popi, laying some flowers at the site of the accident.

This SVS Lectureship will be awarded every two years to an engineer-scientist, who has achieved original and internationally distinguished research results in some R&D field within the broader context of Chemical Engineering. Selection of the most deserving candidate, each time, will be done strictly on grounds of merit. Preference will be given to candidates younger than 40 years of age.

The Recipient of the SVS Lectureship will be invited to present the “Stratis V. Lecture” at the Pan-Hellenic Scientific Conference in Chemical Engineering, which is held every two years, on a rotating basis, at Patras, Thessalonica and Athens, in Greece. The travel, living and lodging expenses of the Recipient will be fully covered from the proceeds of the SVS Trust Fund.

A drive to create the necessary Trust Fund is already under way. Stratis’s colleagues, ex-students and friends are kindly invited to contribute to this drive. For details, please visit the Institute web site (www.iceht.forth.gr).

 

Alkiviades C. Payatakes
Professor, Dept. Chem. Eng., U. of Patras
Chairman, Board of Directors, and Director of the Central Administration of FORTH
E-mail: acp@iceht.forth.gr

 
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