Printed in the program for Austin's high school graduation, 2004
It was a clear, fall day. The large windows in the college lab admitted streams of powerful, undiluted light. It seemed to make the test tubes and beakers in front of me glow. I was about ten at the time, perched high atop a lab stool and focused on a chemical experiment. My mentor stood nearby, keeping an eye on the procedure and patiently answering my effervescent stream of questions. In a burst of enthusiasm, I asked, "Do you think I could be a chemical engineer?" "Yes," he replied, "but you could also be a physicist."
That thought was locked away in my memory, to be retrieved and pondered. Eventually, it became a dream.
I came to Dr. Sonobe as a young boy, bursting with questions. Most people didn't know what to do with me. Dr. Sonobe, however, took my ramblings as a matter of course. Though most chairs of university physics and chemistry departments wouldn't have deigned to put up with an erratic 10-year-old, he patiently explained concepts, helped me with numerous experiments, and answered the multitudes of questions I came up with, no matter what the topic, no matter how far off topic. Whatever I was interested in, he had time to discuss.
I grew older and my aspirations started to solidify. I delved deeper into the sciences and he gave suggestions for my course of study. As my interests expanded, he helped me with other endeavors. When I pursued high school and college studies, Dr. Sonobe was ready to help. Once, when living out of state, I lacked access to equipment and materials I needed to complete some labs. Dr. Sonobe offered to help and made the time-consuming arrangements. I spent a solid week of 8 - 9 hour days in his lab, much of that time with his assistance and guidance. He invited me to stay with his family and in the evenings we discussed the day's experiments and their implications, current research topics in science, and local news. Years ago, he had opened my eyes to what I could become. Now he was assisting me in a very practical way to prepare for that endeavor.
Dr. Sonobe has been my teacher, mentor, and friend for almost a decade now. From the time when I needed a stool to reach the lab bench, to now, at my current height of 6' 2", from my youthful scientific ramblings to my present focused work towards a scientific career, he has been there, helping and affirming.
There is certainly the temptation to be proud of where I am, to say, "Look what I did!" or to think of myself as somehow a self-made man, but it wouldn't be true. Probably no one who ever lived can say that they achieved purely by virtue of their own faculties and volition. If the truth be known, we are all much indebted to fellow human beings who offered a helping hand even though no obligation compelled them.
I owe much to many, but few more than Dr. Sonobe who taught me by example to look beyond present circumstances and see what might be. Many years ago he pointed out distant possibilities on the horizon and has walked beside me on the journey ever since. -Austin Webb