Jacob Stoneburner, ’11, had his future planned when he arrived at Albion College as a first-year chemistry student in 2007. His plans didn’t include the graduate school or medical school paths taken by many chemistry majors, however.
A native of Wyandotte, Mich., Stoneburner wanted to complete his degree in four years while still being able to play saxophone in the British Eighth marching band and jazz band. He hoped that his Albion education would lead to a job close to home and allow him to teach saxophone to students at Wyandotte-Roosevelt High School.
The Albion Advantage, which came to life in the work he did in the lab as a summer participant in the College’s Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Experience (FURSCA) in 2010, and the breadth of classes he took from chemistry to philosophy, paved the way to a job in his hometown as a research technician for BASF that allows him to continue his musical hobby.
“[The job at BASF] is a great fit and the location is one of the greatest assets of the job. I didn’t have to move away from my family… I get to play with a small combo that just recorded its first demo disc,” Stoneburner said, adding that he is assisting the marching and jazz bands at Wyandotte-Roosevelt this academic year.
Graduating with departmental honors in chemistry, Stoneburner says his philosophy minor and environmental ethics in particular were useful in his initial job with Freudenberg-NOK, where he tested products to make sure they complied with European REACH environmental standards. But Stoneburner was looking for a position that would allow him to directly use his chemistry knowledge, and he credits his FURSCA experience for helping him overcome glitches in applying for the job with BASF.
Working in the lab alongside chemistry professor Andrew French, Stoneburner tried to create handed organic catalysts that take advantage of iodine’s unique way of adding electrons to its outer shell in order to react with a target molecule in a handed way. The application would have been most useful in pharmaceutical synthesis where some drugs created in the past had dangerous side effects when the “handedness” of a compound was not controlled.
Stoneburner was able to create the catalyst, but the work bogged down when problems in the purification process left little time and resources to work on the reaction with the iodine. Although the project didn’t work out the way he hoped, Stoneburner completed a thesis titled Synthesis and Evaluation of Chiral Iodophenyl Oxazolines as Organocatalysts.
“The manager did not make a hire after the first round of interviews and my résumé was in the second pile,” Stoneburner recalled. “My formatted résumé didn’t get uploaded due to some glitch, but my experience section was so interesting that I got a phone call anyway.”
“I feel very lucky and fortunate [to get the interview],” Stoneburner said. “I know the odds of someone else doing the same thing again are small.”
At BASF, Stoneburner has made the transition from the glass beakers he used at Albion and now runs high-temperature , high-pressure reactors as the company tests new resins and polymers. These resins become components that improve the paint, finishes, inks, and various coatings we use on a daily basis. Stoneburner said his research and development team runs the materials through larger reactors as it becomes more confident with the formula.
“This is different chemistry that operates through a different mechanism, and there was a large learning curve in operating industrial equipment,” Stoneburner said. “There are a bunch of safety concerns I didn’t have to worry about when I was doing micro-scale experiments in glassware at Albion. Here we’re running up to hundreds of kilograms at a time.”
“The high-pressure, exothermic type of chemistry we do at BASF releases heat that could cause an explosion or fire when the reaction kicks off if those conditions are not carefully controlled,” he added.
With the start of a new school year, Stoneburner’s unlikely path is similar to the Robert Frost quote, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
“I am making a comfortable living while doing interesting work,” Stoneburner said. “On-the-job training is more important than anything you get out of a book.”