Victim was dedicated scientist and caring person, friends say Chemist worked at Grace lab

September 10, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Pamela Basu may have helped us all breathe more easily.

The 34-year-old chemist had barely started her professional career when her life ended violently Tuesday near her Savage home.

But her graduate research into air pollution control had already received international attention.

Wherever she worked or studied, she tempered the seriousness of her work with her smile and easy laugh, say those who worked with her.

Those responsible for bearing news of the tragedy to fellow workers and former colleagues said they were surprised at the number of people whose lives she touched.

"The first call I got this morning was from the guy that comes to service the surface-science equipment, and he just couldn't believe it. He was just hoping it wasn't her," said Nicholas Spencer, Mrs. Basu's supervisor at the W. R. Grace & Co. research facility in Columbia.

"She was serious, quiet, effective and efficient, and she saw deeply into scientific issues," said John T. Yates Jr., director of the Surface Science Center at the University of Pittsburgh, where Mrs. Basu earned her doctorate.

Dr. Yates, who was Mrs. Basu's thesis adviser, was planning to present her with an award for her research on the metal used in automobile catalytic converters.

As a result of her discovery of what causes the metal, rhodium, to degrade, scientists working at the center have patented a method of preventing that process, Dr. Yates said. That work could have a significant impact on the $5 billion catalytic converter industry, he said.

"She worked day and night here in the laboratory. She was one of the hardest-working students and one of the most well-liked students," Dr. Yates said.

Her thesis was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the field's most prestigious publication, and is respected by scientists in Europe and Japan as well as the United States, Dr. Yates said.

The insightful scientist with intense dark eyes was someone who enjoyed life, and after more than a decade of study was seeking personal fulfillment, said Todd Ballinger, a friend who was a fellow student at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Ballinger said part of the fulfillment was adopting her daughter, Sarina.

"She mentioned once or twice that when she had more time she wanted to raise a child," and when she finished her education, she went all the way to India to accomplish that.

Mrs. Basu also had to battle red tape and enlist the aid of the U.S. State Department, only to fail in her first attempt at adoption, Dr. Spencer said.

She adopted 22-month-old Sarina on her second try, he said.

On Tuesday, Dr. Spencer said, he was not surprised that Mrs. Basu was late for work. "She said she might be in a bit late because she had to take her daughter to day care and might have to stick around if her daughter didn't adapt too well," he said. Mrs. Basu was born in India and came to the United States with her parents as a young girl. She lived in the Washington area and received her bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1978 from the University of Maryland in College Park.

In 1980, she received a master's degree in surface chemistry from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va.

Mrs. Basu then went to do research for Aluminum Company of America in Pittsburgh, and decided to pursue a doctorate at the university there, Dr. Yates said.

She is survived by her husband, Biswanath "Steve" Basu; her daughter, Sarina; and her mother and father, who live near Washington.

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