On Nov. 19, Thomas Kwak, an NC State professor in applied ecology, died from a cardiopulmonary event not related to COVID-19. He was known to colleagues and students as an intelligent, kind and dedicated researcher and professor.
Along with being a professor at NC State, Kwak was also the unit leader of the North Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
According to Greg Cope, interim department head of applied ecology and close colleague, Kwak often advocated for the importance of conservation biology.
“He was very inclusive, and he really wanted students and others to understand and learn the value of nature and conservation and why it's important for people to get involved in the outdoors and all of those sorts of things,” Cope said.
Each summer, Kwak taught the fisheries week of the popular Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Summer Camp.
“Students are very engaged, and I think he touched a lot of students in that course,” Cope said. “It was a very experience-oriented, hands-on kind of course, so [students] really appreciated that.”
Not only was Kwak a dedicated professor and advisor, but according to Cope, a very accomplished researcher, publishing well over 150 articles, books and book chapters.
Jennifer Archambault worked alongside Kwak as a researcher for many years after finishing her masters degree at NC State in 2012 with Kwak and Cope as advisors. It was during fisheries week at the summer camp during undergrad that she realized she really wanted to work in fisheries.
“He had just an enthusiasm and passion for the aquatic work,” Archambault said. “And I learned all sorts of techniques in that really hands-on program. I had already decided to dual concentrate in fisheries and wildlife, and I think that really cemented that I was interested in fisheries.”
Sean Buczek, who graduated from NC State with a masters in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology in 2016, describes Kwak as a “life mentor.”
“He was really pivotal in offering a lot of advice and career advice in moving forward and how to really advance in the field,” Buczek said. “Tom really believed in helping students achieve their goals and helping them get there.”
Cope and Kwak co-advised Archambault while she was working on her Ph.D.
“Their styles were different, and they played off each other very well,” Archambault said. “They're both very thoughtful, but Tom had this paternal way about him. … He would encourage or gently prod or remind you of things that maybe needed to get done, or maybe on a technique that you hadn't done in a long time, and just offer those reminders and offer opportunities for growth.”
Buczek said Kwak genuinely cared for and tried to help his students and colleagues however he could.
“I know how much he worked and how hard he tried and loved to see people succeed and genuinely cared about them,” Buczek said. “I think that was something that everybody that knows him feels is that Tom really looked out for you, and he didn't hide it either.”
Archambault said Kwak was a positive force and “irreplaceable.”
“He was the kind of person who, like on National Donut Day or whatever, he would bring the donuts in,” Archambault said. “It's hard to remember any time when he was not positive. … Tom was a delight.”
According to Cope, Kwak was a great man who loved and cared deeply about his family.
“He's overall, just a very good person and a very good colleague and was always willing to jump in and help out wherever needed,” Cope said. “[He was] a really family-oriented man and valued his children and their education, and put great emphasis on that and providing for his family, his wife and children. Just an all around really good, good person.”
Information about how to donate to Kwak’s childrens’ college funds can be found by emailing Carrie Baum-Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other donation options include American Rivers and the Shriners Hospital for Children.