One person that hasn’t been held back during this COVID-19 pandemic is Claire DeWeese, Wittenberg class of 2022.
Last spring, the biology and chemistry double major from Indianapolis, Indiana, received an offer to intern with Clariant, which develops and manufactures chemical ingredients used in many consumer products. She learned the news right about the time COVID cases were rising in many states, but fortunately the position she applied for was deemed ‘essential,’ so she was able to spend the summer working as a member of the corrosion team in Clariant's Integrity lab.
“Around the time I was applying, COVID-19 became a bigger deal in the United States, so I was worried that my internship would not happen or that it would not be what I expected,” DeWeese explained. “However, I was told that Clariant still planned to fly me down and that working in Clariant's lab is essential, so I was still getting hired. It was not delayed at all due to the virus. My first day was May 18 and that started my 10-week summer in Texas.”
As an intern, DeWeese worked on a team of seven in the lab running tests using equipment that simulates an oil pipeline to determine which corrosion inhibitor or concentration of chemicals work best for the field conditions that are provided by their customers.
“This internship was full of learning and just absorbing every bit of new information I could,” she added. “The science and research that is done in the oil and gas industry is unlike anything they teach in general or organic chemistry. Since being on the corrosion team in Clariant's Integrity Lab, I found out that oil pipes do, indeed, corrode. This is a problem I never even thought about until I learned of this internship. This internship allowed me to experience what using a chemistry degree can look like in the oil industry. By getting professional experience, I am able to now see where else my education can take me and how many fields are a possibility for me. My organic chemistry professor, Dr. Justin Houseknecht, told me about this internship opportunity from a Wittenberg alum and that he wanted me to apply.”
That alumnus is Rusmir Niksic, who graduated from Wittenberg in 1996 with a degree in chemistry. Originally from Bosnia, Niksic learned about Wittenberg when he was a senior exchange student in Zanesville, Ohio. He works at Clariant, the specialty chemical company headquartered in Switzerland, and is the father of current student Amor Niksic.
“Wittenberg offered me a solid science curriculum with the benefit of a small-school environment,” he said. “It had an active international recruitment at that time and, for a small school, I was impressed with the size and diversity of the international student population. Then the visit to such a beautiful, warm campus nailed it for me.”
Niksic has worked for Clariant in many countries helping to develop and manufacture chemical ingredients used in such consumer products as cosmetics, laundry detergents, paints, inks, electronics, etc. Currently, he heads their global oil and mining business, headquartered in the Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas.
He and the company strongly believe in industry and wanted to entertain academia partnerships for the benefit of both his company and students.
“For us this is important as we give students a taste of what’s to follow after they enter the job market and, hopefully, some of them choose to work in our field, and at Clariant,” said Niksic, who wanted to study science, but not at a large school which is why Wittenberg appealed to him. “We also hope to broaden students’ horizons on what they can do with their degrees and catalyze their hunger for knowledge. This is why we do internships. We normally hire interns from Texas-based schools. This time I suggested to my R&D colleagues to look into Wittenberg and connected them with the Department of Chemistry. I wasn’t involved in the recruitment process, but I do know that they interviewed several Wittenberg students, and Claire was offered the internship.
“I was overseas for most of Claire’s assignment, but I did get reports that she was doing well,” he added. “I had the pleasure of meeting Claire toward the end of her internship, and I got the impression she enjoyed her experience and learned a lot about chemicals used in an oil field. I also know that my team enjoyed working with Claire and learned from her, too. I am happy we were able to provide this opportunity to a fellow Tiger and hope this story will encourage more students to study science at our beloved Witt.”
Despite COVID-19, DeWeese was able to host family members in Houston, explore the city, including traveling to Galveston Beach, the Texans stadium, the downtown aquarium, and many parks both in the Woodlands and in the city. She’s been kayaking and paddle boating, and has eaten at every single restaurant recommended to her by coworkers.
“I used to tell people that my goal was to be an orthopedic surgeon without even hesitating. It was always my end destination,” she said. “Since working in this field, I am able to see myself in other roles, not necessarily in the medical field. This is not where I thought an organic chemistry course would take me, but I am not disappointed in the least. I am not saying that medical school is no longer an option, but I am now open to exploring others instead of having tunnel vision. Along with this, many of my colleagues have told me about their education experience, and a majority started college as pre-med and ended up in oil and gas.”
And like Niksic, DeWeese also knew that she needed a small school to be able to learn at her highest abilities and propel her forward into the future. In addition to her focus on academics, DeWeese is a member of the women's soccer team, in the Honors program, is an honors ambassador on the Matthies Honors Council, a member of the Sigma Kappa sorority, secretary of the Chemistry Club, and a tutor in the Math Workshop.
“With academics, athletics, and the social life, Wittenberg truly gave me everything I was looking for as a 17-year-old, and it gives me things to this day I never expected I needed or would have,” she said. “Without the strong alumni support or professors like Dr. Houseknecht, Wittenberg would not be the school it is today. I chose Wittenberg to be able to make connections with professors like Dr. Houseknecht. The small class sizes force students to really dial into class and not just zone out like in a 100-plus student lecture. My time at Wittenberg has been most greatly shaped by Dr. Houseknecht. Without him or his insanely hard organic chemistry course, I would not be who or where I am today. Dr. Houseknecht was always accommodating to me, challenged me in class, and is the reason I was in Houston, Texas, with a great internship.”