LCGC recently spoke with the 2014 LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography award winner, André de Villiers, an Associate Professor of Science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, about his current research analyzing natural products, his various interests and collaborations in analytical chemistry, and his role as a teacher.
Where or how did your interest in analytical chemistry begin?
De Villiers: My interest in analytical chemistry coincided with the start of my postgraduate studies. Looking back now, it seems a highly fortuitous conglomeration of circumstances that made this possible: Essentially, my career path was determined by a 30-minute discussion with Pat Sandra and Henk Lauer.In 1999, I was rather unsure about my future plans and was considering various options for M.Sc. studies. In the same year, Professor Sandra was appointed at Stellenbosch University, where I was completing my B.Sc. (Honors) degree, and without knowing much about the field (or Professor Sandra's renown therein), some fellow students and I went to see Professors Sandra and Lauer about the option of Masters' studies. After probably less than half an hour, all three of us walked out of the meeting, looked at each other, and agreed that this was what we wanted to do! (I can only hope that one day I might have the same persuasive effect on my students.) Once I started research in separations — at this point it was mainly capillary electrophoresis (CE) — my future career in this field was set, and I have never regretted the decision.
Did winning the 1997 Merck Prize for the best final-year chemistry student or the 1998 South African Chemical Institute James Moir medal affect your academic plans?
De Villiers: The short answer is no. These were nice rewards for working hard during my undergraduate and honors studies, but to be honest at that point I was probably as unsure of my future as most undergraduate students are at the same point. This all changed during my subsequent M.Sc. studies, where my true fascination with research started. A career in academia followed because it provided an environment where I was free to pursue my interest in research.
What was the most important thing you learned in graduate school?
De Villiers: The importance of the combination of hard work and an inquisitive nature is probably the most valuable lesson I learned during this period. While the knowledge gained during my undergraduate studies is obviously still of relevance, the ease of access to information nowadays makes this less of a critical factor. Rather, curiosity and the willingness to spend time learning about a particular topic, are essential to maintain motivation in research.
Since receiving your PhD in 2004, you have published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and became an Associate Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. How have you accomplished so much in such a short time span?
De Villiers: Once again a large part of this was made possible by a combination of fortuitous circumstances (and of course a fair bit of hard work). I have been fortunate in several aspects during my career thus far. First of all, working in the group of Professor Sandra during my M.Sc. and PhD studies at Stellenbosch University, and afterward in Belgium during my post-doc, I was exposed to leading separation scientists in diverse fields, which has not only contributed to my own scientific development, but also directly influenced my career path. I have been fortunate to maintain contact with many of these leading researchers, and their contributions, either in terms of collaboration or simply in the form of personal discussions, remain essential.
In terms of my academic career at Stellenbosch University, I am severely indebted to my postgraduate students. The first few years of my academic career especially were critically important, since these were focused on establishing an active research group while at the same time developing the courses I taught. This was a steep learning curve, and I am very grateful to the significant contributions made during this period by the first postgraduate students under my supervision. In particular, I should acknowledge the contribution of Dr. Kathithileni (Martha) Kalili. She became my first student at the honors level and has played a pivotal role in developing comprehensive two-dimensional liquid chromatography (LC×LC) expertise in the group during her M.Sc. and PhD studies. This, together with continued collaboration with international scientists, allowed for the continuation of research outputs during this crucial phase of my career.
Furthermore, I have been extremely fortunate in the quality of postgraduate students that have joined my group since these first years — each of them has made a significant contribution, without which the continued output of the group would have been impossible.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge sources of my financial support — this aspect is vital during the establishment of an active research group, and especially so during the first few years. Again, I was privileged that Stellenbosch University and Sasol, in particular, believed enough in what I was doing to support my activities during the period; other significant sources of funding whom I would like to acknowledge include the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF, SA), the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), International Foundation for Science (IFS), and Restek.