Alexander Sougiannis still can hear Raja Fayad’s voice in his head, encouraging him when his research takes a turn for the worse or the workload grows heavy.
Fayad, the beloved professor and researcher killed a year ago in a murder-suicide at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, was known for his eternal optimism, including a belief that researchers eventually would find a cure for colon cancer.
“That’s really what stuck with me, that there’s always an answer,” said Sougiannis, a doctoral student at the USC School of Medicine who did research under Fayad for about 18 months until the shooting. “There’s an answer to this pathology. There’s an answer to this dead end.”
Friday marks one year since Fayad was shot and killed in his office by his ex-wife, who then killed herself. But though Fayad no longer walks the halls of the Arnold School, his legacy in many ways lives on through his students and colleagues.
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Sougiannis said Fayad’s optimism, fueled by the Lebanon native’s understanding of the importance of colon cancer research, has rubbed off on him.
“He always was optimistic, even if something went horrible, which happens more than you can imagine in science,” Sougiannis said.
The entire Arnold School seemed to take on Fayad’s drive in the months after his death, said James Carson, chair of the exercise science department and associate director of the Center for Colon Cancer Research at USC.
Fayad, who was 45 when he died, and his graduate students had been studying, among other projects, the effects of diet, exercise and obesity on inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. After his death, faculty at the school stepped in to mentor Fayad’s students and see some of his studies through.
Fayad’s graduate and doctoral students continued their work. Some later that year defended theses and doctoral dissertations for research conducted in his lab. Fayad’s research is still being published by his students, with help from faculty members, Carson said.
“Maybe that’s one of the lasting legacies. Maybe that’s something that rubbed off. There was just no give-up in anybody, including his students,” Carson said. “Everybody was just bent on completing their tasks.”
Fayad, who earned his medical degree at Aleppo University School of Medicine in Syria in 1995 and came to USC in 2008, was known for making difficult classes worthwhile and for going the extra mile to build relationships with his students.
Sougiannis remembers one night early in his research with Fayad when he thought he was alone in the lab and began playing music from his native Greece. Moments later, Fayad came dancing out of his office. That broke the ice, and the two spent the next few hours getting to know each other, soon becoming friends.
He and other former students remember how short meetings in Fayad’s office often turned into long discussions about anything and everything.
“When you think about a professor, this is who you wanted it to be,” Sougiannis said.
Kamaljeet Kaur, a doctoral student who had done research under Fayad since 2011, said she finds herself emulating Fayad’s teaching techniques when she runs labs at the school.
Kaur said, like Fayad, she tries to make her students feel comfortable, sometimes seeking out quiet students and making sure they understand the material.
Tom Chandler, the Arnold School’s dean, recalls sorting through Fayad’s office after his death and finding a large box filled with former students’ letters thanking Fayad for being an excellent teacher or for taking time to write thoughtful reference letters for medical school and other ventures.
“He was all about the students,” Chandler said.
Fayad’s death left the Arnold School’s faculty with a renewed sense of purpose, inspiring them to “take a step back and remember why we’re here,” Chandler said. That meant spending more time getting to know and mentoring students, Chandler said.
Fayad also left behind a “Nutrition and Immunology” course he designed that has become popular with upper-level undergraduates and graduate students, Carson said.
“He had a lasting impact,” Carson said. “I think it helped us focus on our mission within the department, combining research and our teaching mission and mentoring mission with our students. And actually seeing the outpouring from the university community as a whole was, I think, very inspiring to a lot of us.”