K3 | My Organic Chemistry Guru


Academic heroes can have their eccentricities. The organic chemistry guru of columnist Monique Bruining used to take a nap during presentations, but still ask mind blowing questions afterwards. Her admiration was as great as her fear of approaching this great mind. But when she finaly contacted him, it opened unexpected doors.

It was early in the morning. Dozens of master students from the TU/e Department of Chemical Technology and Chemistry braved the cold wind to wait for the bus that would take us to Janssen Pharmaceutica in Beerse. Everyone including our supervisor, who was no less than our guru in organic chemistry, was very excited about this trip. I wanted to know more about the company, whose founder, Paul Janssen, said that scientists need time and freedom to invent new things. What more could a scientist want? 

After about an hour’s drive, we arrived at the research site of Janssen Pharmaceutica. We were welcomed with open arms and guided towards a large conference room, which was optimally prepped, such that the presenter and the audience felt very comfortable. The first presenter started talking and we gave him 100 percent of our least that's what I thought. I glanced at our supervisor sitting in the front row expecting to see pure excitement...but to my surprise he was far away at Sandman Land. I was shocked and couldn't believe my eyes. He was taking a nap!...  

I couldn't help but feel embarrassed. What a moment to tune out! He seemed to be enjoying the peaceful moment. I have to admit, my attention to the presenter waned and I was completely focused on our supervisor. After the host finished his last words and the applause began to subside, our supervisor snapped out of his nap and raised his hand. A mind blowing question followed. My embarrassment melted like ice in the sun and was replaced by pride. Even now my colleagues and I have to laugh about this amazing trait of our organic chemistry guru. It was kind of his trademark that he always took a nap during presentations and everyone was confident that he would brew a great question in the twilight zone between being asleep and awake. 

You can imagine that napping during his lectures on Organic Chemistry was out of the question. On the contrary students sat in his classroom high on adrenaline because he always posted ‘nasty’ questions to us. When this passionate man was in front of the class and you were in the audience, you needed to know your organic chemistry stuff…. That was more than clear.  

At that time we did not have projectors in the lecture halls. Transparencies were used back then. Once during one of his lectures he wrote a reaction mechanism on a transparency. He walked away from it and looked at the audience and asked which mechanism this was? Complete silence answered his question, no one blinked and you could hear a pin drop. I was pretty sure I knew the answer… but was afraid to have the wrong answer and insult this passionate teacher. I guess I was not the only one in class who felt this way. After a lot of Flemish “Allee’s” on his part, he indeed stated that the depicted reaction mechanism was a Diels Alder cycloaddition.  “Allee people, You should know this!!” 

He did not cut you any slack when it came down to his beloved domain of organic chemistry. I had to brace myself before approaching this strict gentleman with a question. However, it was when our mutual passion for organic chemistry intersected that his stern demeanor began to soften. Connecting with him opened up the way to see the beautiful person behind my guru. Overcoming my fear for sternness opened up many dialogues. For the shy people out there, connecting with your guru might open unexpected doors. Give it a try! 

In many of his students he unleashed the hunger for organic chemistry. I have been in management for over twenty years and I still enjoy organic chemistry, thanks to this passionate and kind man. 

Monique Bruining is Managing Director of the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS) at TU/e. The views expressed in this column are her own.  

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