Milton Ray Sommerfeld

November 24, 1940May 16, 2017

Dr. Milton Sommerfeld passed away at his home in Chandler, AZ, on May 16, 2017. He was 76. He was an esteemed scientist and teacher, a fisherman, a fiercely competitive softball player, the best barbecuer outside of Texas, and a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He lived exactly the life he wanted, and was surrounded by his wife of nearly 54 years, children and grandchildren when he ended his battle with cancer.

One of the nation’s top experts on algae, Milt has spent five decades researching and engineering uses of the plant, from biofuel to food to cleaning up environmental threats. At Arizona State University, where he worked for 48 years, he was known as "The Wizard of Ooze" because he was the green slime's top evangelist, illuminating the potential of algae with a showman's vibrant imagery, science jokes and – if you were lucky – an algae cookie, freshly baked by his wife, Carolyn.

Milt was born in 1940 in a farmhouse in Thorndale, Texas, to Eldo and Julia Sommerfeld. He still owns the family farm. He earned a BS in Biology from Southwest Texas University in 1962 and a PhD in Botany from Washington University in St. Louis in 1968. That same year, Milt launched what became an expansive career as an ASU professor, researcher and administrator. He served as Chair of the Department of Botany and Microbiology and Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He was the founder and co-director of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. He has more than 300 scientific publications, has mentored more than 60 PhD, MS and postdoctoral students and taught thousands of undergraduates. He received numerous awards over his career, including ASU’s Outstanding Teaching Award in 1987 and Innovator of the Year in 2007. His work was also named the 11th best invention in TIME Magazine in 2008. He “retired” in 2016 but had yet to hang up his lab coat.

Milt brought his passion to every aspect of his life, from competitive softball, which he played until he was 65 (when he was ejected for telling off an umpire), to hunting and fishing with his son and grandson, and cheering at his granddaughters’ ball games. He slaved over the grill and smoker as he perfected his own father's famed barbecue ribs and brisket, loving nothing more than having his home full of kids and grandkids oohing and aahing over his barbecue triumphs. Behind the smiles in every family picture, know that “Papa” was urging the kids to substitute “cheese” with “algaeeee.”

But most important was his devotion to Carolyn, his biggest cheerleader, constant companion and wife of 53 years. He is also survived by his son, Milton Sommerfeld Jr., of Chandler, and daughter, Julia Sommerfeld, of Seattle; his daughter-in-law, Julie Sommerfeld; son-in-law, Chris Landman; grandchildren, Sierra, Ryan and Lauren Sommerfeld and Jude Landman; and sister Joy Dell Leschber of Hutto, Texas.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, May 27, at 9:30 am at King of Glory Lutheran Church in Tempe.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Milton Sommerfeld Fund to Advance Algae Research. Please make checks payable to the ASU Foundation and send to PO Box 2260, Attn Cash Receipting, Tempe, AZ 85280 with “In Memory of Milton Sommerfeld” noted, or online at Gifts will go to a permanently endowed fund to assist students.


  • Memorial Service Saturday, May 27, 2017

Milton Ray Sommerfeld

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James Richards

February 11, 2018

I was a Masters Degree student under Dr. Summerfield from1970-73. He was my mentor and he engrained in me a passion to ask big questions and use methodical science to find real answers; this became the foundation of my own career - I never forgot his constant encouragement to think more clearly and act more boldly. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

Ranga Rao Ambati

January 20, 2018

"I knew Prof. Dr. Milton Sommerfeld since May 2011. I worked as Postdoctoral Research Associate under his supervision at LARB, Arizona State University. I really miss you. My deepest condolence to you and your family members. May his soul rest in peace- Dr. Ranga Rao Ambati (Andhra Pradesh, India)

Leanne Nash

July 17, 2017

I knew Milt through his administrative work and as a faculty colleague. I was very sad to hear of his passing and send my deepest condolences to all of his family. However, I knew him best as the father of one of my best honors undergraduate student mentees. He had to be a great guy, and married to a wonderful woman, as they raised a wonderful daughter. My special thoughts go to Julie at this sad time. I remember Milt as all you would want a colleague to be.

John Rampe

June 24, 2017

To the Sommerfeld Family:

I only recently learned of Dr. Sommerfeld's passing, so please accept my late condolences. I was a graduate student of his in the late 1970's and will always be grateful to him for his guidance, humor and patience - much more than I deserved. He was a great man, and a great positive influence in my life. Please accept my prayers and my deepest sympathies.

Wayne Crayton

June 11, 2017

Carolyn and family: I am heart broken about Milton's passing. He was a great mentor as my major professor and he changed my life forever when he took a chance on me (an U of A grad) as a graduate student. So many great memories at ASU ... he taught me so many things that I applied throughout my life and career as a biologist. Over the years we became close and I always enjoyed seeing him appreciate the salmon I would send his way from AK. He never made it up this way to catch his own but I'll catch a few in his honor this summer. Fish on Milt!

Peggy Nelson

May 24, 2017

Milt was a role model as a professor, researcher, and administrator. I think often of how he worked with people and believed in all of our successes.

Jim Swafford

May 23, 2017

It is with great sadness that I heard of Milt's death.
He was known world-wide for his algal research, even in Pittsburg, KS.
My instructor, chair and friend, yes fishing and camping at Roosevelt Lake with our kids.
Carolyn and Milt hosted some of the best faculty parties. Picture provided by Bill Sharp

Barbara Stark

May 20, 2017

Milt was the genuine article---I knew him mainly through administrative interactions. He brought an animated devotion and great talent to research and was a fair and constructive administrator. It is an honor to have known and worked with him. Particularly because he was an administrator not bent on power or personal advancement and who understood scientific research, he brought all-to-rare guidance to our faculty. My deep condolences to family and friends.

Morgan Vis

May 20, 2017

Milt was an inspiring colleague. His commitment to his research and students was always evident. Wayne and I feel that our lives are richer for having known Milt and Carolyn.

Dominique Laroche

May 19, 2017

I am very sad to hear of Dr. Sommerfeld's passing. I had the honor of working for Milt in the college administration. He was not only a boss but a true mentor. He was ethical, hard working, fair, and passionate about his work. He was also very supportive when I navigated a family tragedy. I only hope Milt's passion for his work can live on in each of us.