Cal State LA professor dies


Helen Le

Professor Chellappah Chanmugathas taught at Cal State LA for 20 years, inspiring young and old students to do better in organic chemistry.

Mia Alva, Editor in Chief

On Monday, November 14, faculty and the Chemistry and Biochemistry department were shocked to hear about the passing of long-time professor Chellappah Chanmugathas at 82. He passed away suddenly after his blood pressure dropped, according to his wife, Rada Chanmugathas. 

Chanmugathas taught organic chemistry at Cal State LA as a lecturer for about 20 years but started his teaching journey in Sri Lanka, where he is originally from. 

Most colleagues and former students know Chanmugathas as “Dr. Chan” which is what he would tell students to call him. 

Chanmugathas’ impact at Cal State LA 

He has been a professor at Cal State LA since 2000, according to Krishna Foster, the department chair of chemistry and biochemistry. 

“It’s only recently where I got to see who he was in the classroom,” said Foster. “But in talking to students and faculty, he knew how to move people and help them through difficult things.” 

According to his former students, Chanmugathas was amazing at organic chemistry. Although his knowledge helped students, his caring characteristics made students admire him as a professor. 

Two of his former students, Mark Avellan and Nanda Ganesan, were surprised to end up working with Chanmugathas at Cal State LA. The relationship between the students and Chanmugathas grew from there. 

Ganesan, now a professor and the Department of Information Systems Chair, first met Chanmugathas in high school in Sri Lanka. 

“[He] helped me a lot because he would teach without intimidation,” said Ganesan. “Back home, the teachers are held at a very high position, and they can, at times, be intimidating. He was not.”

For Ganesan, organic chemistry was no joke, and he didn’t like it when he first learned it, but Chanmugathas was able to make a change in him. 

“He demystified organic chemistry for me,” Ganesan said. “It was mesmerizing being in his class.”

When the civil war broke out in Sri Lanka, Ganesan, along with Chanmugathas, fled the country to the U.S., and that is where they reconnected in the 80s and have kept in touch since. 

“I think I owe a debt of gratitude to him because he contributed to my progress toward college. Entering college back home is very difficult,” Ganesan said.

Avellan, who is now an instructional support technician at Cal State LA, first met Chanmugathas at West Los Angeles College in 2007 as his professor. 

Avellan was still able to work closely with Chanmugathas as his graduate assistant for years at Cal State LA. 

“A few times he had emergencies and couldn’t teach a class and he trusted me enough to teach the class,” Avellan said. “He recommended me to be an instructor to teach some classes too because he said I was good at it.”

As Chanmugathas’s graduate assistant, Avellan learned more about him and worked with him until COVID-19 closed the campus in 2020. When Avellan completed his master’s, he was brought back to Cal State LA and shared an office with Chanmugathas. This is where the two grew even closer. 

“I helped him with a lot,” said Avellan. “Up until maybe two weeks ago, I was helping rebuild his bus pass because his vision wasn’t that great. So he would ask me things to help him with things he had problems with, but for the most part, he was a very independent, proud person, but he would ask for help when he knew he needed it.”

Avellan was shocked to hear of Chanmugathas’s passing because he had never suspected that he had any health issues. 

“It definitely surprised me,” Avellan said. “I wasn’t expecting that he would pass over the weekend. He was teaching Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so I last saw him on Wednesday, and I expected to see him again on Monday. His stuff is still there. He still has his jacket on the coat hanger. It’s not like he wasn’t coming back.”

“He touched a lot of lives,” Avellan said. “He really did inspire and affect a lot of people because he’s been teaching for so long. And I’m sure a lot of people don’t even know he passed.” 

A favorite memory that Avellan will always remember about Chanmugathas is, “just seeing him teaching, wearing his lab coat and talking to students because I think that’s where he seemed happiest. And that’s where he had the most influence on me. That’s what he was most passionate about.” 

“I would just say it’s a great loss. We need more faculty who can really focus on the potential of a student and take the time that’s required to develop that potential,” Foster said.

Foster was saddened and shocked to see how the university was not honoring the passing of Chanmugathas. 

“It is a problem on this campus,” said Foster. “If an administrator passes away or tenure track faculty, that’s one thing, but the lecturer faculty tend to be invisible. It’s not right. It doesn’t help anybody.”

The Communications and Public Affairs office gave the UT a statement from Alison McCurdy, associate dean of the College of Natural and Social Sciences, on behalf of the university.

“We are saddened by the sudden passing of beloved chemistry professor Dr. Chellappah Chanmugathas. Dr. Chanmugathas was part of Cal State LA for 20 years and was a respected teacher, scholar, and colleague. He was a quiet, kind spirit who cared deeply for his students. His passion for organic chemistry, combined with his love for teaching, left a profound impact on all of us. The contributions made by Dr. Chanmugathas to Cal State LA, his students, and the community are immeasurable. Our hearts are with his family and friends during this difficult time, and we support those whose lives were impacted by his loss, including our students and colleagues.” 

Teaching journey

Originally from Sri Lanka, an island country in the Indian Ocean, he graduated with his bachelor’s in 1967. He started teaching at Jaffna College in Sri Lanka, according to his wife. 

As soon as he started teaching, he was admired by many students for the way he taught, according to his wife. During the 1980s, he went to the U.S. to pursue his master’s degree and then his Ph.D. 

He obtained his master’s degree at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and then moved on to Penn State to get his Ph.D., where he graduated in 1987. 

He did a post-doctoral fellowship at USC for four years and started to teach again during his third year at USC at West Coast University part-time, where he taught for two years. 

This was a tough balance for Chanmugathas and his wife since they were both working full-time and had two small children. 

“So in the afternoon, like four o’clock, I will come home, and he leaves to pick up the kids and brings them home. So this is how we worked for about 10 years until the kids grew up,” she said. 

He taught as an adjunct professor at a number of colleges, including Cal State Long Beach, Glendale Community College, and UCLA.

For many years, Chanmugathas would teach at two colleges at a time, up until one year ago. 

He was planning to finally retire completely this December. 

“His legacy in life is about learning,” she said. “He believed in lifelong learning. Learning never ever stops.”