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Inside the World’s Largest Chemical Company, a Rutgers Student Finds a Receptive Audience for his Research

A fellowship created by BASF generates opportunities for aspiring chemists 

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Nick Lease had spent months preparing for the big moment.

On a sweltering summer afternoon, the 26-year-old Rutgers University graduate student donned an Oxford shirt and tie and entered the halls of BASF, the world’s largest chemical company.

BASF 2Inside the company’s catalysis research facility in Iselin, New Jersey, Lease stood at the head of a meeting room and presented his research on chemical catalysts to an audience of executives and academics.

When it was over, they responded with sustained applause.

“It was a big moment for me,” said Lease, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, School of Arts and Sciences.  “Presenting my research to an audience outside of a university setting was a challenge, and I really grew from the experience.”

Lease is the first recipient of the BASF Corporation Catalysts Division Fellowship in Chemistry and Chemical Biology. The company established the fellowship last year as a way to support Rutgers and help develop a pipeline of talented chemists. The July 25th lecture fulfilled a requirement that the recipient present research to the company’s heterogeneous catalysis research team, which supports the catalysts division.

BASF Corp. is the North American affiliate of Germany-based BASF SE and has nearly 17,500 employees in North America, with sales of $17.4 billion in 2015.

“The fellowship reflects our strong commitment to support education at Rutgers University with a focus on a high-performing individual who exhibits diversity, experience, leadership, special skills, and talent,” says BASF’s Peter Walther, Senior Vice President, Heterogeneous Catalysis Research.

Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Peter March said the fellowship—which covers a graduate student’s tuition and related expenses for one year—is a model for public-private partnerships that will benefit students and drive advanced research. 

“We welcome the graduate fellowship generously established by BASF,” March said in a statement. “The School of Arts and Sciences is committed to maintaining and developing such partnerships that leverage the school’s expertise and lays the groundwork for advancement in research, education, and service.”

The idea for the fellowship emerged several years ago when Robert M. Ianniello, a Rutgers alumnus and a BASF executive began serving on the chemistry department’s advisory board.

“The concept came up at a number of meetings,” said Ianniello, who earned his doctorate in 1982 and went on to a career in the chemical industry, recently retiring from BASF as Vice President, Analytics & Services. 

BASF 1Ianniello saw the graduate fellowship as a win-win option—one that would provide support for Rutgers and help BASF find talented students who may choose a career in industry.

“One of the pillars that BASF operates under is to build the best team,” Ianniello said. “Rutgers being so close to the company’s research facility in Iselin should be a natural pipeline.”

Besides geographical location, Rutgers and BASF pursue common research objectives.

Lease, for example, works in the lab of Professor Alan S. Goldman, focusing on catalysts that can help produce a chemical reaction. His catalysis research is potentially useful to BASF, which is the largest chemical company in the world, and serves industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to automotive to agriculture.

“Developing a catalyst could help produce a potentially life-saving medicine quicker, cheaper, and easier,” Lease said. “And the benefits are not limited to pharmaceuticals. Catalysts can help generate commodity chemicals across many industries.”

 Lease earned his bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College, where he learned about Goldman’s catalysis research at Rutgers. 

“My advisor at Brooklyn College knew Professor Goldman and put me in contact with him,” Lease said. “And that’s what drove me to come to Rutgers. I wanted to join his lab.”

Goldman, who attended Lease’s presentation at BASF with chemistry department Chair John Brennan, said the fellowship benefits the chemistry department as a whole by exposing students and faculty to innovations and breakthroughs occurring in the industrial sector.     

“It’s really important in academics to have an understanding of what’s going on in industry,” Goldman said. “The questions from the BASF folks following Nick’s presentation were very different from what you might get at an academic conference.  It makes you think differently. And that’s a good thing.” 



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