Gifts from alumnus support organic chemistry symposium, early career professors

Dr. T.M. "Terry" Balthazor

For more than 30 years, graduate students in chemistry at Illinois have organized a biennial symposium that brings world class scientists to Urbana-Champaign to share their innovative research in organic chemistry.

A recent gift this year from Dr. T.M. (Terry) Balthazor (PhD, '75), along with prior support from fellow alumnus Peter Senter (PhD, '81), helps ensure the newly-named Balthazor-Senter Symposium on Frontiers in Organic Chemistry will continue – in perpetuity – celebrating research at the frontiers of synthesis, bioorganic and materials chemistry. And a separate gift recently made by Balthazor ensures that early career professors in chemistry have funding to launch their initial research projects.

The 16th Frontiers symposium was held on Oct. 22, 2022, at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology on the UIUC campus. The speakers were Brian Stoltz, California Institute of Technology; Ryan Shenvi, Scripps Research Institute; Paul Chirik, Princeton University; Elizabeth Nolan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Samson Jenekhe, University of Washington.

In 2015 and 2016, Balthazor and Senter each established endowments to support the symposium. Senter made an additional gift in 2021 followed by Balthazor’s most recent gift in 2022, and now the combined support from these two alumni ensures the symposium will continue long into the future.

Balthazor said his recent gift, in some sense, finishes a task he started with his previous gift, which was prompted by the late Peter Beak, a longtime professor of chemistry at Illinois who served as an independent consultant for Monsanto where Balthazor spent his entire professional career.

Balthazor did not have a lot of interaction with Professor Beak when he was a graduate student in chemistry at Illinois, but their professional relationship years later at Monsanto led to their friendship.

“We became colleagues and good friends,” Balthazor said of Beak, whose vision for the Frontiers Symposium led to its creation in 1990.

Balthazor said he jumped at the chance to provide long-term support for the Frontiers Symposium with his gift earlier this year.

As envisioned by Beak, the symposium is planned, organized, and hosted by a committee of graduate students representing each organic chemistry research group at Illinois. The work to organize and host the event and the event itself are professional development opportunities for the graduate students who learn from the speakers’ research presentations and gain opportunities to network with them during the symposium, which also benefits the entire organic chemistry community at Illinois.

Balthazor has attended the initial symposium in the past. He said the symposium attracts some of the very best talent in the field and it was important to him to ensure this symposium continues so graduate students in chemistry at Illinois continue gaining exposure to top scientists in the field.

Peter Beak’s lasting legacy, as exemplified by the Frontiers Symposium and the Allerton Conference was to empower graduate students to take an active role in their professional development while also contributing to the culture of scholarship and engagement in the department. Balthazor’s most recent gift provides the financial security to assure that the Frontiers Symposium will continue to provide students that experience in perpetuity.

“I took away a great deal from the University,” said Balthazor, who retired from Monsanto as vice president and director of research. “They provided me with the tools to succeed. So, without the University of Illinois, I wouldn’t have had the career that I had at all. I owe that institution a lot.”

Also, in 2020, Balthazor established a second endowed fund, T.M. Balthazor Faculty Scholar Endowment Fund, to support early-career faculty in their research. The inaugural recipient of that award is chemistry Professor Angad P. Mehta.

Balthazor said this gift is about helping scholars launch the research to begin exploring their ideas, serving as a little seed money for their initial liftoff.

“I thought about this a lot when I was director of research [at Monsanto],” said Balthazor, who held numerous scientific, leadership and strategic analysis roles in more than 25 years at Monsanto.

He provided many commercial opportunities for Monsanto ranging from new active ingredients, novel genes, and new processes for the manufacture of glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup® herbicide. He also isolated the first microorganisms capable of biodegrading glyphosate. Beyond the safety and environmental impact of this discovery, such organisms were the source of genes in the development of the first and most successful example of herbicide tolerant transgenic plants utilized in modern agriculture – Roundup Ready®.

Born on a farm in rural Kansas, Balthazor attended Fort Hays State University, a small state university where he graduated summa cum laude and was the first in his family to graduate from a university. He chose Illinois for his PhD.

“I chose Illinois for graduate school due to its reputation in chemistry,” he said. “Later, it became of great value to have graduated from there, people recognized it. Once you hear degree from Illinois people who knew about chemistry paid attention.”

And Balthazor said that students who attend the Frontiers symposium as well as graduate students in chemistry at Illinois have great opportunities to learn from the excellence that is on display.

“I think as a student it’s critical to see what excellence looks like. You can’t model something you don’t know. Seeing excellence, expecting excellence is a very different thing than hoping for excellence. That visualization and that interaction makes all the difference in the world,” he said.