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College of Science & Mathematics

Explorations at Home

A wide-eyed freshman when she first stepped on Rowan University soil in 2005, Heather Whitaker was a bright young mind, looking to explore the vast possibilities and unchartered territories in chemistry. She had no idea that in nine years, she’d be leaving her mark on future Rowan students and potentially, the region.

Heather Whitaker is the co-founder of Lanix Exploration, a company specializing in developing rare earth, element and mineral prospects in North America. The company is focused on the exploration and identification of potential high-end minerals deposits, as well as research in the processing technologies.

“When I saw that [the company] would need assistance in identifying rare earth elements and minerals,” exclaimed Whitaker, “I could think of no better place – dedicated to research – than Rowan University.”

In November of 2013, Whitaker approached the Chemistry Department for the three phase multi-year partnership, and an initial grant of $100,000 for the first year.

She had just the right professors in mind to run the project.

A freshman for little over a month at Rowan, Whitaker was first offered a research opportunity in the lab of Professors Dr. Kandalam Ramanujachary [Chary] and later, Professor Amos Mugweru, who just so happened to be the co-Principal Investigator and Principal Investigator of the partnership.

“We were thrilled to have Heather come back to us and are very happy to be assisting her in her company’s endeavors,” said Chary.

The project involves the discovery, identification, quantification, isolation and purification of rare earth elements and minerals, left behind in mine tailings from across the country.

Due to many geo-political factors in the harvesting of these rare earth metals, according to Dr. Chary, the United States is dependent upon other nations to supply such materials, which are essential in the fabrication of computers, mobile phones, fuel cells and Magnetic Resonance Imaging [MRI] scanners.

“What other countries are starting to do is halt the supplying of these raw materials to the U.S.,” explained Dr. Mugweru. “They have decided to keep the materials, make the end products themselves, and then export these to us at a higher price.”

The technological revolutions occurring in third world countries isn’t aiding in the supply and demand, or cost of these materials in the global market place.
According to Dr. Chary, in 2010, Europium was valued at $475 per kilo; in 2013, the price is now $3,800 per kilo. In 2010 Terbium was valued at $605 per kilo; it is now $2,794 per kilo – over a 100% increase in both prices

“What we can learn from this trend is that relying on outside resources for these materials is neither sustainable in price nor in jobs,” said Dr. Chary.

Enter the Analytical Chemistry expertise of Mugweru, the Inorganic Chemistry expertise of Dr. Chary and the opportunity provided by Heather and Lanix.

“This is a team effort to produce cheaply and safely the raw materials that we need in all sectors of our economy,” explained Dr. Chary.

While Whitaker cited the expertise of both Mugweru and Chary, she said that she also came back to Rowan for the students.

“Working in these labs brought science to life for me,” said Whitaker. “It was something that made me want to come to Rowan.”

Whitaker said that when she went off to intern out of state, companies were pleased with her versatility with the lab equipment and her understanding of chemistry.

“At Rowan, you can work with six or seven different pieces of equipment, when at other schools, most students are excited to work with just one piece,” Whitaker said.

Opportunity was what drew Whitaker to Rowan, and it is what has propelled her; she felt that she should give the opportunity back to Rowan students.

“Research provides invaluable skills and knowledge,” said Whitaker. “It teaches students to look outside the test tube and how they can better society.”

The College of Science and Mathematics made its mission to bring in more research opportunities to undergraduates as part of college advancement; something the Dean Parviz Ansari says is what makes the college unique.

“The College values its industry partnerships such as the one between Lanix Exploration and the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,” said Ansari. “Our industry partners improve the value of our students’ education by sponsoring research projects, providing career training and opportunity, providing curriculum advice, and contributing in other ways to the mission of the College.”

Heather Whitaker, nine years after being a freshman at her alma mater, feels no different walking the campus from when she was a student.

“I’m excited to be back. Rowan is more than just a university to me, it’s a family.”

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