Drive Begins to Endow Dr. Amai Chemistry Fund

Dr. Robert Amai

Dr. Robert Amai 

Las Vegas, N.M. — The Highlands University Foundation launched a fundraising campaign to raise $2,800 to make the Dr. Robert Amai Fund for Chemistry Students a permanent endowment.

The fund, named after a popular Highlands professor emeritus, has provided dozens of scholarships for outstanding chemistry students. The university’s Chemistry Department and the student Chemistry Club spearheaded the fundraiser.

“Dr. Amai’s passion for chemistry is evident even to those who have only met him a handful of times,” said organic chemistry professor Brooks Maki, who advises the Chemistry Club. “It’s fitting that these awards inspire and reinforce the students’ interest in chemistry.

“The awards are also important because they recognize the enormous contributions Dr. Amai made to the Chemistry Department, the students, and the university as a whole. Endowing the chemistry awards will make his legacy permanent,” Maki said.

Each spring, the chemistry faculty confers three undergraduate awards: one for the outstanding general chemistry student, one for the outstanding organic chemistry student, and one for the outstanding chemistry senior. The awards range from $150 – $250.

Jim Cole, a 1965 Highlands University political science and history graduate, was named a distinguished alumnus in 1999. In 2000, he established the Dr. Robert Amai Chemistry Awards at Highlands with a gift and has made contributions over the years.

Cole, a successful businessman and civic leader in New Castle, Ind., has also served on the Highlands University Foundation board. In his student days, he took a general chemistry class from Amai.

“Everyone thought the world of Dr. Amai, and he was beloved at Highlands,” Cole said. “His door was always open and he helped everyone. Dr. Amai had very high standards, set an excellent example, and encouraged students to reach their personal goals.

“Dr. Amai wasn’t just an exceptional professor, he’s a very kind person and wonderful individual. He really affected his students’ lives in a positive, lasting manner.  You can’t say enough good things about Bob Amai,” Cole said.

To this day, Cole stays in touch with Amai through exchanging Christmas cards.

Over the years, Amai has also made contributions to the chemistry awards, along with his family, Highlands University colleagues, and friends in the Las Vegas community.

“Students need to know that we applaud their efforts and are proud of their achievements,” Amai said. “The chemistry awards encourage the students to continue their studies in chemistry and other sciences.”

A native of Hilo, Hawaii, Amai earned both his undergraduate and master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. He completed his doctoral degree in organic chemistry from Iowa State University.

Amai first came to Highlands University as young research associate in 1960 and was asked to join the faculty in 1962. He served the university with distinction for 28 years.

From 1969 to 1974, Amai served as the chairman of the Chemistry Department. During his tenure, he also served as the graduate dean and adviser to international students.

In 1986, Amai became the first faculty member to receive both the Professor of the Year award and the Exceptional Service to the University awards in the same year.

Amai originally planned to work as an organic chemistry research scientist. Then as a doctoral student, he had the opportunity to teach organic chemistry and was hooked. 

“You always feel so good when you convey an idea and a student grasps and understands just as you want them to. It’s not them parroting and memorizing information, it’s synthesizing information in a series of thoughts that answer a question thoroughly,” Amai said.

Amai also mentored many graduate students in his Organic Chemistry Laboratory at Highlands, teaching them how to isolate and synthesize organic products. He was known for the way he connected with his students.

“I always felt students wished to be recognized and treated as individuals, and I tried to associate names with faces of my students as soon as possible. I am grateful to all the students with whom I worked — in and outside the classroom — for the enjoyment and satisfaction that they brought to my career,” Amai said.

He said it’s very rewarding to learn of his former students’ accomplishments — whether it’s success in medical and dental school or professions like teaching and business.

“Whatever the discipline, a person who truly enjoys teaching busts their buttons a little with pride at their students’ success,” Amai said.

After his retirement from Highlands in 1988, Amai taught chemistry at the United World College — USA through 1995. While at UWC, he also directed the Community Service Program for five years.

From 1996 to 1998, Amai returned to Highlands as a supervisor for the Chemistry Research Laboratory. 

“It was a joy to come back to Highlands,” Amai said.

Amai and his wife, Pat, a retired elementary school teacher, have always been dedicated volunteers in the Las Vegas community. The octogenarians are known for their gracious kindness, energy and positive outlook. The couple is also a familiar site walking in town and on the River Walk, and exercising at the university’s Wellness Center.  

Amai is still active in the Kiwanis Club, Las Vegas CROP Hunger Walk, and Las Vegas Community Soup Kitchen. He has also served on the board of the Carnegie Library.

“We like to do something for the community, and it’s always fun because you’re interacting with other people. It’s about bringing joy to someone for a little while, and you hope it has a lasting effect,” Amai said.

Every Thursday, Amai volunteers at the community soup kitchen.

“It’s nice to see people smile and be happy when they get a plate of food. I’m blessed that at 81 I can still do this. I thank God and my lucky stars,” Amai said. 

Those wishing to contribute to the chemistry award fund may send tax-deductible checks payable to the Dr. Robert Amai Fund for Chemistry Students to the Highlands University Foundation, 905 University Ave., Las Vegas, NM 87701. Or contact Darlene Chavez in the Foundation Office at 505-454-3223 or dmchavez@nmhu.edu.