In Memory of M. Jack Ohanian

In In Memoriam, News by Staff Report

Dear Colleagues,

I am sad to report to you the passing of one of our long time colleagues, Dr. Jack Ohanian. Jack served many roles in the college and university over his 40 year career, including Associate Dean and Interim Dean in the college, as well as Interim Vice President of Research. He was always a passionate and tireless advocate for the university and for the profession of engineering, especially nuclear engineering which was his academic discipline. He was very active nationally, having served as chairman of the American Association of Engineering Societies and former president of the American Nuclear Society. Jack left a lasting legacy to the college through his generous endowment of the Ohanian Lecture Series, which brings outstanding scholars to campus to enrich the intellectual climate for our faculty and students. A memorial service is being planned. I will update you on the location and time of the service once the arrangements have been finalized by the family. Please note that the family has requested that flowers not be sent at this time, but that if you would like to honor his memory, they encourage you to make a gift to the Ohanian Lecture Series fund.

Cammy Abernathy
Dean of the College of Engineering

Read Dr. Ohanian’s obituary in the Gainesville Sun

A Job Well Done

From The Florida Engineer, Summer 2001
By Aaron Hoover

After nearly 38 years at the University of Florida, interim engineering Dean Jack Ohanian will retire this summer.  With his attention to detail and eye for quality, he played a key role in the growth and heightened stature of the engineering college, colleagues say.

The odds didn’t look good when Jack Ohanian set out to convince the federal government to create a multi-million dollar particle research center at UF.

At least 110 other universities also sought a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, including such heavyweights as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan.  UF had never attracted federal support for a single project on so large a scale, so there was no one to turn to for advice.  And Ohanian and colleagues had already made at least three failed bids for engineering research centers.  “It was a long shot because we didn’t have a track record as a university of doing these things,” Ohanian says.  But a team composed of Ohanian, Win Phillips, then dean of engineering, and Brij Moudgil, professor of materials science and engineering, kept UF in the running as the field narrowed to 55 universities and then to 10.  Ohanian helped craft a presentation that narrowed the number to three, and UF was awarded the center in 1994.

“He was very actively engaged in the entire process,” says Moudgil, who directs the $5.3 million center in its newly-built 23,000 square-foot building.  “A lot of people knew principles, but Jack knew how to put them in practice.”

It’s an oft-repeated assessment of Ohanian, who will retire as interim dean this summer after nearly four decades at the college.  As a teacher and researcher in his field, nuclear engineering, and as a top administrator in the engineering college, Ohanian set high goals and worked steadily and efficiently to achieve them, colleagues say.  It’s no accident that his rise through the ranks – first in the nuclear and radiological engineering department and then in the engineering college brass – closely parallels the growth and increasing stature of the college, they say.

“Jack has always strived for excellence,” says Win Phillips, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school.  “He knows what quality is when he sees it – and he has always been able to make decisions on the basis of quality and the future of the College of Engineering.”

With $10, Starting a Life in a New Country

Few would have guessed Ohanian’s future lay in Florida when he came to America from his native Turkey at age 23.  His father was a successful furrier but felt his son would have a better life outside Turkey, where the family’s Armenian heritage made them targets of discrimination.  Ohanian, who had a bachelor’s degree from Robert College in Istanbul, arrived in New York in 1956 with 100 Turkish lire – about $10 – and the promise of acceptance to graduate school and an assistantship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

In his first year at Rensselaer, Ohanian lived with the family of a management professor, which helped him improve his conversational English.  “My main problem was with American slang, but I picked it up fairly quickly from the family’s five teenagers,” he says.

Ohanian majored in electrical engineering, but focused on nuclear engineering as a result of spending two summers as a research assistant at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.  It was a period of great excitement and optimism about nuclear energy.  At Brookhaven, researchers were probing many novel nuclear reactor concepts, an atmosphere of scientific openness reflected in Ohanian’s master’s thesis on circulating liquid fuel reactors.  The idea never reached the experimental stage, but “back then, a lot of new ideas were being fried, some just on paper but some actually built,” Ohanian says.

Ohanian earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1960, following it up three years later with his doctorate in nuclear engineering and science.  His doctoral adviser told him UF had recently launched a nuclear engineering program.  In a period when the first commercial reactors were just coming on line, nuclear engineering departments were a rarity among U.S. universities, and Ohanian promptly applied.

UF was a much smaller place.  Fall 1963 enrollment totaled just 14, 810 students, about a quarter of the 46,107 students enrolled currently.  Engineering college enrollment was just 1,244 students, a fraction of the current total of 6,243 students.   The “new engineering complex” – the now weathered aerospace, electrical and chemical engineering buildings – had yet to be built.  The graduate school was so small that Ohanian, like all other prospective professors at the time, interviewed with the late Linton Grinter, namesake for Grinter hall and the head of graduate studies.

Ohanian and his wife, Sandy, moved into their new home in Gainesville on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot.  At UF – where J. Wayne Reitz was president – Ohanian joined just eight professors in a department that enrolled 40-50 graduate students and had no undergraduate program.

‘Very Methodical and Rational’

In his early years at UF, Ohanian focused on research and teaching.  Among his most prominent activities was his role in research at a close-to-critical experimental facility formerly on campus.  Ohanian jokes that regulators probably wouldn’t allow the facility to be built today, but he says it achieved interesting and important results that allowed the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy) to better understand the dynamic behavior of nuclear reactor cores.

Ohanian mentored several students during the 1960s, but perhaps his best-known protégé is Nils Diaz, who went on to become a longtime UF faculty member and is now a commissioner on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Ohanian chaired Diaz’ doctoral committee, and the two worked together in a tiny office for years.  Diaz, who started UF’s Innovative Nuclear Space Power & Propulsion Institute, says Ohanian taught him skills that have proved essential to his career.

“Jack is one of the most exacting, performance-driven academicians and executives I have known,” Diaz said.  “He taught me how to write, precisely and to the point, a skill I nourished and used constantly.  He has been a remarkable and dependable asset to the University of Florida, the state and nation.”

As Ohanian continued to work, his natural administrative talents became evident to nuclear engineering department Chairman Robert Uhrig.  Uhrig, who went on to serve as dean of engineering between 1968 and 1973, appointed Ohanian chairman of the nuclear engineering department in 1969 – a year before he became full professor.

“Jack is extremely well organized and does things in a very methodical and rational way, with what I call the engineering mentality,” says Uhrig, a Gainesville resident who is also a Distinguished Scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee.

As chairman, Ohanian focused on improving and growing the department, increasing its size to 150 upper division undergraduates and 65-70 graduate students by the mid 1970s.  He also broadened its scope, taking over the medical physics academic program from the College of Medicine.  Coupled with the department’s expansion into health physics and related areas, the move eventually earned the department its current moniker as the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering department.  Ohanian went on sabbatical at the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge Associated Universities between 1976 and 1978.  There, he worked closely with nuclear pioneer Alvin Weinberg on a blueprint for an acceptable nuclear enterprise for the United States.  At that time, it was projected that there would be as many as 1,000 nuclear plants by the turn of the century, and the blueprint was considered a landmark study.

Shortly after Ohanian’s return to UF in 1979, he earned his first appointment in the engineering college as associate dean for research.

That year proved a turning point for the nuclear industry.

“The China Syndrome,” a movie about a fictional nuclear meltdown, had just finished a first-run in theaters when the nation’s most serious nuclear accident occurred at Three Mile Island.  Although nuclear energy was already facing problems due to its unexpectedly high cost, the accident cast a pall over the industry that continued for many years.  Plants under construction were completed, but no new ones had been ordered since 1978.  (The current total of 103 plants generates about 21 percent of the nation’s electricity).  Nuclear engineering departments everywhere, including at UF, lost students and downsized or revamped their offerings.  Contrasting the heady years of the mid 1970s, the UF nuclear engineering department currently has about 44 graduate students and 20 upper division undergraduate students.

Ohanian is a strong advocate for nuclear power, penning editorials espousing his views that have appeared in The Gainesville Sun, the Miami Herald and other papers around the state.  He admits it hasn’t been easy to view the downturn in the industry, but he’s optimistic about its future.  The nationwide shortage of electricity, coupled with technical advancements that have made nuclear plants safe and much more efficient, make nuclear increasingly attractive, he says.  Because nuclear plants to not produce any carbon dioxide, they also appear to offer the best hope of reducing greenhouse gases while continuing to produce the megawatts of electricity that society demands, he says.  Also, the current workforce is rapidly reaching retirement age, meaning there will be plenty of opportunities for young people in coming years.

“Ultimately, we will see the second era for nuclear energy,” Ohanian says.  “But it’s going to take another five to seven years before we get to the point where utilities will start building plants again.”

Hi Proudest Achievements

After ten years as associate dean of research, Ohanian became associate dean for administration and planning in 1989 and, two years later, associate dean for research and administration – the number two spot at the college.  He served as interim vice president for research and dean of the graduate school between 1998 and 1999 before being named to his current position as interim dean of engineering in July 1999.

Ohanian says his proudest achievements include snaring the ERC and helping to encourage and foster more interdisciplinary programs and cooperative ventures, such as the biomedical engineering graduate program.  A fellow of the American Nuclear Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he is also proud of his numerous achievements in the profession, including serving as president of the American Nuclear Society in 1990-91 and chairman of the board of the American Association of Engineering Societies in 1994.

Looking back, he says, He’s glad his career slanted more heavily toward leadership than research roles.

“I’ve n ever been the typical academic,” he says.  “I’m more of a practical guy.  I’m a doer.  I like to get things done, and I have been there and done that.”

While his retirement officially begins July 1, Ohanian expects to devote some time, on a part-time basis, to helping Pramod Khargonekar, incoming dean of engineering, adjust to his new position.  But ultimately, he’ll have to relax his work ethic.  He says he is looking forward to the change.  He and Sandy plan to move permanently to their lake home near Keystone Heights.  They expect to spend more time enjoying their favorite recreation – vacations to distant corners of the world, often aboard small cruise ships.  Ohanian also wants to take up woodworking.  The couple will certainly enjoy more visits with their daughters, Heather Allen and Holly Welty, husbands Scott and Richard, and the Allen’s children, one-year-old Benjamin and four-year-old Samuel.

“After putting in all these years,” Ohanian says, casting a smile at the photos of his grandchildren on his desk.  “I think I deserve to relax a little and pursue other interests.”