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Jaya Lakshmi '99

Jaya (Mohanan) Lakshmi, PhD ’99 has spent her entire career protecting the environment and helping us breathe a little easier.

It’s all because of her research with catalysts. She holds 14 patents for the research she’s conducted for the global chemistry corporation BASF in New Jersey.

But what does that mean?

Agencies throughout the world, including the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency, regulate vehicle emissions. Lakshmi’s division of BASF, Mobile Emissions Catalysts, develops catalysts that reduce harmful emissions components from the exhaust system of cars and trucks. Their clients are the car companies and original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, who must meet these regulations.

Simply explained, a catalyst does not take part in a chemical reaction, but speeds one up. Used in gas-powered vehicle exhaust systems, they reduce hazardous outputs, like carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and soot particles. Anyone who remembers the smog prevalent in cities in the 1970s understands the benefit of reducing these airborne toxins that irritate lungs and pollute the environment. Today, pollutants emitted from vehicles have been reduced by as much as 98%.

Interior view of a catalytic converter inside an exhaust pipe, where catalysts do their work. Interior view of a catalytic converter inside an exhaust pipe, where catalysts do their work.

It’s All Chemistry

Lakshmi grew up in a small village in southern India. Her family immigrated to White Plains, NY when she was 15 years old. Unable to speak English, but with reading and writing capability, she struggled socially in high school but excelled in science and math. “The education that we had, even in a small village back in India, had a strong science foundation,” she says.

With a burgeoning fascination for chemistry, she chose to attend Purchase after visiting and speaking with professors. She was pleased to find such a strong science program at a school known widely for the arts. And she could commute.

Particularly appealing was the senior project and presenting research at the Natural and Social Sciences Symposium (which just celebrated its 40th year). “It was a nerve-wracking experience at the time, but it helped me move to graduate school, where you present on a regular basis,” she says.

She worked in the chemistry labs on campus as much as possible. Through work-study, she was a technician, preparing samples for upcoming lab sessions. She also assisted Taina Chao, professor emerita, and flourished with the freedom and independence allowed. She became skilled in working with the variety of instrumentation available.

The combined hands-on learning experiences left Lakshmi certain she wanted to pursue graduate school. “I really liked what I was doing. And getting the chance to see a real chemistry lab. I wanted to pursue graduate school and this solidified that whole idea. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

Applied Learning

She attended Wayne State University to study under a new professor there, and was faced with an empty lab upon arrival. Together they built the lab from scratch. “I was overwhelmed and feared, ‘am I going to make it here,’ because I have to set up a lab and then do my research, and then publish papers.” Despite the fear factors, her confidence and “can do attitude” pushed her to excel, eventually publishing eight papers, including one in the prestigious journal Science.

Today, she no longer conducts research. Her role for the last five years at BASF has been Expert in Innovation Management, in which she manages the division’s intellectual property. With over 300 active patent filings for the division, she ensures the research they do is protected. But she also tracks the work and patents of competitors, to look for crossover or invalidations. “It’s a lot of strategizing, seeing how much money it might take, or does it make sense.”

Women in STEM

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she’s encouraged by the increase in the number of women she now sees on teams and in leadership positions, even in the 14 years since joining BASF. Early on, she would often travel to Germany, Korea, and Japan to present her findings where she would be the only woman in the room. BASF is committed to increasing its diversity and now has two women on its board. “Last year they hired the second female board member out of six. That’s a huge change, but it’s still only two out of six.” She remains hopeful.

Moral Boost

Lakshmi never complains about going to work in the morning. “I’m there because I want to do it. I’m helping the bigger picture, not just this one company,” she says. “That’s definitely a boost morally. I feel like I’m doing something as a citizen to the world. I’m doing something good. I’m using the skills that I acquired over time and the chemistry that I always liked. To me, it all makes sense. Everything has chemistry in it, so how do you really take that and apply it to the real world?”

One of her BASF research projects resulted in a catalyst used in certain trucks. Even a trip down the Jersey Turnpike can be more satisfying to her than most. “Every time I see a Ford Super Duty Truck, I’m like, ‘Yeah, my catalyst is in there.’”

From the bottom of our hearts, and lungs, we’re grateful for her dedication.

—Kristi McKee