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“Molecules have to be separated first before you can identify them.” CHIS director, professor Gert Desmet (49), explains the field in which he has just won a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant. Separate and distinct in his own way, one of Desmet’s protégés - professor Wim De Malsche (38) - basks in the glow of his own ERC Starting Grant. For a team to reach such a pinnacle once would be cause enough for major celebration – twice has defied the odds. 

 

Text: Jozefien De Marree

Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele

 

Flashback to June 2004: VUB bio-engineering master’s student Wim De Malsche is showing his displeasure at the level of some of professor Gert Desmet’s exam questions by answering them very succinctly. But this merely provokes Desmet to think, ‘I need this guy on my PhD team!’ Twelve years down the line, and many ground-breaking publications later, they still challenge each other on a daily basis but, above all, they constitute a first-class team. “When I have an idea that requires micro technology, Wim immediately knows which equipment and processes are needed. If he is stuck on a profound theoretical problem, I might be able to offer advice,” Desmet says.

 

Separate & control

In the chemical industry the separation of molecules is considered a crucial phase in the production process and in quality control. One of these separation processes, chromatography, plays a vital role in the bio-sciences and its importance will only increase thanks to the growing interest in cleaner production processes and sustainable energy use.

 

Both Desmet and De Malsche study the separation of different types of molecules but the overlap in their respective research areas is, in fact, small. In the incubation of new concepts and applications, Desmet is focused more on theoretical aspects, whereas De Malsche likes to find applications for his ideas. 

"We should be able to separate 10,000 human molecules and discover what is happening in a cell"
-
Gert Desmet

Their research has applications in the pharmaceutical industry and in anti-doping investigations, but also increasingly in fundamental biological research, in which current separation techniques render inadequate.

 

In the human body hundreds of thousands of molecules are constantly actively involved in numerous biochemical processes. To fully understand these, scientists use high performance liquid chromatography (see insert) to identify the main molecules. They are currently capable of detecting 10,000 molecules, a mere fraction of the multiple hundreds of thousands that are active in the body.

 

Stir & forge

The discovery of all these mysterious molecules demands a radically new approach to liquid chromatography. Desmet elaborates: “Disorder is the number one enemy of a clean separation. Thanks to ‘perfect order’ we should, however, be able to separate the 10,000 molecules and discover what is happening in a cell. Different types of molecules have to be separated first, before detectors can discern between them.”

 

With his ERC project - Printpack - he will therefore develop a manufacturing technique to produce new materials that are precisely structured. Billions of microscopic building blocks the size of a few micrometres are to be ‘forged’ together over very large areas, with the precision of a few dozen nanometres. “Since these length scales are so difficult to attain, engineering at this scale to create new materials constitutes a beautiful challenge.” With this project leading trade journal The Analytical Scientist named him among ‘the 20 most influential people in the world of analytical sciences’.

 

Desmet and De Malsche founded a spin-off company called PharmaFluidics and De Malsche works with companies like Procter & Gamble and Umicore. Finally there is his ERC project EVODIS, a completely new subject that De Malsche likes to call ‘stirring on microscale’.

“Molecules in a liquid are always pushing against one another. That is how they move, like dancers following a random path for a whole evening. In order to separate molecules through chromatography, however, they need to be caught on a surface. Accelerated mass transport of molecules is not hard to perform, but doing so in a favourable way is. Diffusion, the process whereby molecules distribute themselves from a high to a low concentration, is a major limiter in this. Think of a sugar cube that needs a long time to fully dissolve in a cup of tea. Stirring speeds that process up.” De Malsche conceived a method to expedite the mass transport of molecules by ‘stirring’ them, utilising induced liquid streams and electrochemical effects to do so.

 

Leaping and dreaming

Desmet advises his peers with ERC ambitions to, above all, dream big: “Think long and hard about your ultimate personal, academic dream - your moon-shot. That is ultimately what ERC is all about.”

 

He could only use his vacations to dream and so his ERC project is the result of ten summers of fantasising about the ultimate breakthrough in his field. Desmet describes it as “a scientifically enriching exercise that compels you to innovate”. A multidisciplinary approach proved crucial in that respect - what is currently possible in other areas and which techniques do other colleagues use?

 

De Malsche concurs: “You must look at completely different fields, leave your comfort zone. The challenge lies in doing so in a credible way. Around 80% of my project deals with electrochemistry, a field I knew nothing about. I studied for months to earn credibility with the electrochemists on the ERC panel. You must prove that you possess enough boldness and curiosity to take the leap into another field.”

 

Eliminate and find perspective

When Desmet learned the Advanced Grant deadline had been brought forward from September to June 2015, he was a little rattled. In the scarce spare time he had outside his ‘normal work’ between January and April, all he did was contemplate.

“When I start writing too soon, I lose myself in details”
-
Gert Desmet

 “When I start writing too soon, I lose myself in details.” That’s why he didn’t have a lot on paper when, in early May, the renowned training and consultancy firm Yellow Research reviewed his proposal, coolly noting that there would be another call next year. But Desmet buckled down in those final three weeks and incessantly wrote, rewrote and eliminated. “I wrote 60 pages to eventually reduce that down to the final 15,” he recalls.

 

He had just sat down for a bio engineering department meeting when the first congratulatory emails concealed the official ERC mail in his inbox. After finally reading and re-reading the original email, he banged his fists on the table and euphorically exclaimed: “I’ve got it!”

 

Contrary to Desmet, De Malsche was not successful in his first attempt and had to re-submit it. “I didn’t change the essence of the project, but I described it in a more general and more understandable way. ERC panel members in the first round are often from a totally different scientific domain.”

 

When De Malsche finally received his confirmation his eyes focused on a particular sentence at the bottom of his email: ‘This message can in no way be construed as a formal confirmation of the awarding of the scholarship’. “What was I to do with that message? I had to convince myself for weeks that I had the scholarship!”

 

They both agree that without a massive amount of preparation, there is no chance of success. What does that entail? Desmet praises the European Liaison Office (ELO) at VUB, who provided him with previously awarded ERC proposals in various fields that he gladly thumbed through because “every proposal I read taught me something”. Just as important were the moral support and critical feedback he got from ELO, as well as the workshops of Yellow Research. “Although you must also put the many recommendations in perspective. Always put the science first and select your own accents.”

 

Both professors advise others to constantly test their ideas with peers - from both within their own field and outside it - during the writing process. “Applying for an ERC grant by yourself, at your own desk, is just not possible,” according to Desmet. “Find people that are very critical of your proposal”, he suggests.

 

Collaborate & contradict

Any research group that gets an ERC grant is elated, but one that receives two major scholarships bursts with joy. CHIS will now be able to expand its staff list dramatically. Over the past 10-15 years the group has already doubled in size from 20 to 40 team members. But in the last few years there hasn’t been much room for expansion, so the grants come at a welcome time. Both professors also hope it will provide them with more opportunities to brainstorm together. “When the two of us get together to brainstorm, things get really wild! Wim generally has even crazier ideas than me, and that’s saying something.”

 

Why did CHIS rake in two ERC grants?

“Because creativity has always been held in the highest regard here! We have a culture of wild ideas and thinking outside the box.” Desmet attributes that creativity mostly to the founder of the research group - the man dreaded among students, Samuel Wajc. He stood out by preferring creative ideas over expensive equipment in the underfunded early years of the VUB. Wajc’s successor, Gino Baron, continued down the creative path and he in turn handed the reins to Desmet in 2008. 

 “You cannot teach such creativity, but you can recruit based on it. Recently-graduated employees are encouraged to think along with us and contradict us from the get-go, because it keeps us alert.”

 

De Malsche is living proof of this. “When I started working at CHIS, I constantly disagreed with everyone.” Desmet agrees: “The students need to have the guts to go against us, we have no use for ‘yay-sayers’. Such interaction is only possible with top students, as criticising your boss is not easy. If they are able to contradict us, despite their lack of experience, they are made of the right stuff.”

 

ERC Grants

European Research Council Grants (ERC Grants) are awarded to individual, strongly independent scientists and count as the personal pinnacle of European financing.

 

Starting Grants

  • 2-7 years after PhD,
  • up to €1.5 million
  • up to 5 years

 

Awarded or currently active at VUB

  • 2010: Ivan Markovsky
  • 2013: Mathieu Vinken, Nathalie Vermeulen, Bram Vanderborght
  • 2014: Stijn Buitink
  • 2015: Frederik Buylaert, Luc Baeyens, Wim De Malsche
  • 2016: Dave De Ruyscher

 

Consolidator Grants

  • 7-12 years after PhD
  • up to €2 million
  • up to 5 years

 

Awarded or currently active at VUB

  • 2011: Bart De Boer
  • 2013: Peter Schelkens
  • 2014: Han Remaut
     

Advanced Grants

  • up to €2.5 million
  • up to 5 years

 

Awarded or currently active at VUB

  • 2012: Johan Schoukens
  • 2015: Gert Desmet

 

More information
ELO (R&D): vub.ac.be/en/research/policy/european-research

 

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