UJ scientist explores how Serendipity can be crucial to professional success

Scientists can now take that “a-ha” moment to go with a method that University of Johannesburg (UJ) researchers have developed and successfully tested to speed up the chances of an unexpected yet groundbreaking chemical discovery. Catalysis is a branch of chemistry that involves accelerating the rate of a reaction by adding a catalyst. During catalysis, the reaction typically takes a different pathway from the unanalyzed reaction, as Prof Reinout Meijboom finds out.

According to Reinout Meijboom, Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry at UJ, the notion of serendipity is a common occurrence throughout the history of scientific innovation. “In life and in research, we are not following a linear road. Many times we find something serendipitously, showing us a side path. “When we discover these serendipitous side roads, we have to make a decision. We either follow the same road or ignore the discovery, or we take the side road to a completely different place. We have to make the decision though,” he said.

Professor Meijboom highlighted some points of his research career, with a focus on the work performed at UJ. During his career, many serendipitous discoveries were made, causing a change of direction in the research. “Such changes of direction are deliberate choices, leading one in a completely different direction but required the researcher to move outside his comfort zone,” he said when he delivered his professorial inauguration lecture entitled “Blue pill or Red pill: we need a fast reaction!” Prof Meijboom inaugural took place in the University’s Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Tuesday, 20 November 2018.

The focus of the lecture was on catalysis work, based on templated nanoparticles and reducible mesoporous metal oxides. “We elucidated the mechanism of several reactions on the surface of these nanoparticles. We also discovered a ‘synergistic effect’ between the nanoparticles and the support causing an increase in the rate or reaction,” he said, adding that the description of the work is limited to only one model reaction, the reduction of 4-nitrophenol. This, he said, was in the interest of time.

Additionally, the serendipitous discovery of selective apoptosis by silver coordination complexes was discussed. “Out of a group consisting of ~3000 compounds, we accidentally found several tremendously potent anticancer agents. This work has attracted significant attention in the media in 2018,” said Prof Meijboom.

In conclusion, the lecture described future work and the direction chemistry is taking. This part described the ongoing digitization of chemistry. “We are currently already digitising our teaching by using 3D printed molecular modeling kits for the first year students. This brings the price of these kits down from approximately R200 to R10, and enables all our undergraduate students to better understand the geometrical concepts used in chemistry.”

Read the speech here

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