In a recent interview with Drs. Junaidah Osman and Sani Ibrahim, ’81 discussed their experiences as graduate students, importance of graduate education and what it’s like to be business partners in their company, SaniChem Resources.
You are alumni of Kansas State University – Junaidah received her master’s in physics, Sani’s master’s in chemistry. Why did you both decide to attend K-State University for your graduate degrees?
We had a friend, Dr. Hamzah Darus, who went to K-State one semester earlier. He convinced Junaidah and me to join him. There were already two families from Malaysia in Manhattan, KS who were attending K-State. We were not disappointed when we reached Manhattan during Christmas break.
Being an international student, what was life like transitioning to the American culture, specifically life in the Midwest?
We attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. for our undergraduate degrees. I majored in Chemistry and Junaidah majored in Physics. We have already been in the United States four years before moving to Manhattan. We were already tuned to the American way of life. Junaidah had American foster parents when we were in De Kalb and we used to visit their house on the farm in De Kalb.
What were some favorite memories from Graduate School?
Tuttle Creek, Aggieville, Westloop and the heavy snow in April were some of the nice memories of our stay at K-State.
Experiences from your time at K-State and in Manhattan that had a lasting impression on you?
Sani –The student body’s passion for sports, particularly basketball and football, even though K-we were bad in football. And such rivalry towards University of Kansas- several chickens were painted purple and let loose in Aggieville the night before the Big Game.
Junaidah – Doing the physics coursework was particularly very difficult. As graduate students in Physics, we were given homework with lots of tough problems to solve. But my American classmates helped a lot. We would stay in Cardwell Hall late into the nights to solve problems together. I cherished the friendship with all the other graduate students I had while studying in K-State. I could still vividly remember their faces but cannot recall their names. Sani and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Manhattan and will cherish it forever.
Who were your mentors or major professors during Graduate School?
Sani – Prof. Lambert was my first academic graduate advisor for chemistry. My research advisor was Prof. Wayne Danen.
Junaidah – Prof. Al Compaan was my first academic advisor. Prof. Chris Sorensen was my research advisor.
Favorite memories from your mentors?
Sani – Since Prof. Danen was leaving K-State for Los Alamos Laboratory at the same time I was completing my M. S., we had a farewell dinner. I remembered he advised me to stay in the academic profession and I did that up until 8 years ago when I retired from Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Junaidah – Prof. Sorensen is a very nice person and very patient with his graduate students. Whatever problems I had then, I was free to discuss with him. He would listen and went out of his way to help. He is very attentive to his students’ needs.
How has a graduate degree at Kansas State University prepared you for your career?
Sani – The research area on laser-induced reaction was a new area of research then. I was lucky to be in the group with Prof. Setzer, a pioneer in high energy laser. I was interested in physical organic chemistry and continue to do Ph. D. in this area at the University of Manchester. However, due to lack of equipment and support, I ended up in building an academic career in environmental pollution analysis and environmental monitoring of organic pollutants, specifically persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Junaidah – It was my ambition to be a theoretical physicist. The research exposure and the coursework I took while at K-State prepared me to pursue my Ph.D. in Computational Physics at University of Salford in the United Kingdom. It also had helped prepare me to teach physics courses at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. I was a professor in physics at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) until 2008 when I took an early retirement to go into business. While at USM, I was active in research for computational condensed matter physics, specifically in the area of electromagnetic wave propagation in ferroelectric materials.
How has having a graduate degree from an international university helped your career?
During the late 70’s, research in Malaysia was not well developed. Most local universities focused on developing curriculum and teaching of science. There was hardly any research funding until the mid-80’s. Thus it was natural to do graduate studies abroad and several scholarships were made available to qualified candidates. While doing our M.S., we were recruited by University Sains Malaysia when they came to make official visits to several universities in the U.S.
You are now both managing a business together, what made you decide to start your company, SaniChem Resources?
The retirement age then under Malaysian Government employment was at 56 years old. I figured that we would be still too young to stop working. Thus we took optional retirement which entitled us to a monthly pension when we were 51 years old to have a head-start to a new career. We were doing consultation services for a few companies and planned to start a testing and consultation company upon our retirement.
What have been some business lessons that you have learned along the way?
Dealing with customers is harder that dealing with the same people while we were professors at the university. Any business involved competing with other companies for the same customers. We needed to have a niche to have an upper hand. Having a PhD is a big advantage in the laboratory service business. The title “Dr.” in front of our names projects a feeling of confidence and trust to the customers. In addition, our good and personal services is important but our foremost niche is honesty.
What is it like working as business partners?
Junaidah and I first met when we were undergraduates at DeKalb, Illinois. We got married while studying at KSU during the 1980 summer holidays. We were building our careers together at the same time while raising a family of five children. We agreed to start our business earlier than planned and moved from Penang in the North to Bandar Enstek and just south of Kuala Lumpur. Since the nature of our business are mainly chemistry related, Junaidah started our quality certification program and handle the company finances while I focus on technical development. We fit well in developing the business as we focused on one niche area—- medical device testing. It was eight years ago that we started the business and now we have customers from all over Malaysia and also from several countries from Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian region.