The Turlock community lost one of its brightest stars when Stanislaus State mathematics professor Dr. Viji Sundar passed away in November. The passionate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) advocate had a mission to stimulate the next generation of problem solvers.
"It's really simple; the world needs a lot more engineers, mathematicians and scientists than we did 20 years ago. We've gone past the information age...we basically need minds that will create, minds that will innovate, minds that can solve problems," said Sundar in a 2015 interview with the Journal.
Sundar served 42 years at Stanislaus State as a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and established numerous educational programs that helped students and teachers —both at the university and in communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
Sundar believed that introducing students to the language of math, science and engineering at a young age is the key to increasing the number of qualified college graduates in those fields.
She was a founding member of the California Mathematics Project, a statewide program that was formed to enhance the quality of California’s K-12 mathematics education by increasing teachers' mathematical content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, and by supporting and developing leadership skills.
Sundar was also instrumental in securing grant funding to establish and support the Preparing Women for Mathematical Modeling summer program, which engages high school juniors and seniors in the field of mathematical modeling. The program helps young women develop confidence, and plants the seed for a college and career path in the fields of mathematics and science.
She was the driving force behind programs that included the university’s STEAM Academy, the Pre-Freshman Enrichment Program and the High School Math Access Program (HiMAP).
Sunder also served as the CEO and founding president of the Sundar Institute, a nonprofit organization created to champion educational access, equity and advocacy for underrepresented and low-income K-12 students.
Rapunzel Amador Lewis, a structural engineer, met Sundar in 2009 through a mutual friend. It wasn’t long until Amador Lewis, working as the state coordinator for the Future City Competition, pulled Sundar in to work as a mentor and coach for the national competition where teams of middle school aged students imagine, design and build cities of the future. Soon after Sundar got involved in the Future City Competition, the state championship was held in Turlock at Stanislaus State and a local team took the title.
That started a decade-long relationship between the two working together to promote math, engineering and all sciences to youth — from the yearly summer math camps Sundar hosted to robotics workshops and teaching financial literacy to high schoolers.
Amador Lewis said she “could not do her legacy justice” when it came to all the programs Sundar created and ran in the community.
They also shared an appreciation for engineering. In fact, Sundar was recognized by the San Joaquin Engineers Council in 2015 with a Distinguished Service Award.
Sundar said that engineering is the one discipline that draws from both science and math and is the field with the most opportunities to create domestic jobs for future generations.
"Problems are getting bigger, and cognitive skills are needed to solve those problems...simply getting data isn't enough, analyzing data is the key," she said after receiving the award in 2015.
Born in Kerala, India, Sundar earned her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry at the University of Poona, India. She went on to earn both her Master of Science and doctorate at the University of Illinois, Urbana.
In 1978, she joined Stan State as a visiting lecturer of mathematics. The following year, she was promoted to assistant professor and eventually earned the rank of professor in 1988. She served as department chair from 2005 to 2008.
During her decades of service, Sundar earned a plethora of awards and honors. In 2003, she was the first Stan State faculty member to earn the California State University’s prestigious Wang Family Excellence Award in the Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering category. She earned three outstanding professor awards from the Academic Senate and in 2008, the Stanislaus County Commission named her as one of that year’s Outstanding Women.
Sundar is survived by her husband Kal, the couple’s daughter Seema, son Suneel and four grandchildren. Her family has established the Dr. Viji Sundar Memorial Fund to honor her passion for learning and contributions can be made at: https://stanforacause.csustan.edu/project/29635