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Foto: Romain Beker
wetenschap

Once UvA’s Bob Pirok (36) got only F’s for chemistry, now he excels in his field

Sija van den Beukel,
10 juli 2024 - 15:00

As one of the youngest chemists, Bob Pirok (36) recently won a prestigious prize in analytical chemistry. Yet his career was far off the beaten track. ‘I will be the last one who would give up on a bad student.’

Analytical chemist Bob Pirok would never have finished his studies. He failed his final exams at secondary school in chemistry - as well as Dutch and mathematics - and when he was allowed to start studying chemistry at the UvA due to a lenient policy, he did not get any credits for years.

 

Yet - years later - he obtained his PhD “cum laude” in analytical chemistry, won many international awards for young scientists and was named one of the 100 most influential analytical chemists by the journal The Analytical Scientists in 2021 and 2022. In early May, he won the HTC Innovation Award for his work on fully automating separation technology with artificial intelligence, a distinguished award normally given to established chemists at the end of their careers. But there was a long way to go before that.

 

Why did you want to study chemistry?
“Because I wanted to become a teacher. I was very bad at chemistry in secondary school but I had a nice chemistry teacher who did experiments in a theatrical way. I wanted that too. But to be a first-grade teacher, you have to have a university education. And so I ended up at the UvA.”

 

You often took longer to process the material, why was that?
“I did not master enough knowledge from high school when I started at the UvA. That was also due to my home situation - I come from a poor family - which contributed to me not being a good student.”

Foto: Romain Beker

You often took longer to process the material, why was that?
“I did not master enough knowledge from high school when I started at the UvA. That was also due to my home situation - I come from a poor family - which contributed to me not being a good student.”

 

You took seven years to complete your bachelors. How did that come about?
“It was partly because I got kidney stones. I didn’t know that at first, but as a result I was often sick. I started falling behind and developed fear of failure. At one point, fellow students graduated and I started feeling ashamed and isolated. That went downhill all the way to suicidal thoughts.”

 

How close were you to giving up studying altogether?
“Very close. How many times I was told by teachers and my parents to quit, every year. And logical too. I wasn’t getting any credits and then you start wondering if you’re in the right place. Of course I doubted whether a WO bachelor’s degree was too ambitious. But I just really didn’t want to give up, that was out of the question.”

 

How did you manage to finish your bachelor’s anyway?
“The first step in the right direction was to study Norwegian, inspired by Norwegian friends I had from my childhood. Then I gained some credits and it was easier to try chemistry again.”

 

“There were also teachers who approached me and said: come over at six o’clock and we’ll do five maths assignments. That’s not much, but it worked, and that’s how I regained confidence.’

“How many times I was told by teachers and my parents to stop, every year”

“I was still one of the worst students, yet professor Peter Schoenmakers helped me get a cool project where I got to work with all kinds of equipment. During my master’s, my grades tilted towards B’s.”

 

“My mother did die in that period, which was difficult. The UvA really took care of me in that period. Also, I would never have been able to finish my studies without the UvA’s graduation fund. In that sense, I am really made by the UvA.”

 

How did you come up with the idea to automate column chromatography - an invention for which you received the HTC Innovation Award in early May?
“That all grew out of irritation with how things where going. Everywhere in industry, whether it’s environment, food or medicine you have to deal with mixtures of substances. To separate such a mixture, column chromatography has been used for decades. This is a separation method that can be seen - somewhat cliché - as a shopping street. If there are many toy shops in the shopping street, children stick there and parents and children are separated.”

 

“In a chemistry column, it works similar, only with substances. There are then hundreds or tens of thousands of different kinds of substances in one mixture. To separate them from each other, all the parameters - such as the speed and temperature of the column - have to be optimised.”

 

“Finding those parameters takes weeks, sometimes even months, and is often done by students doing an internship in industry. So during my internship, I regularly asked myself: why do I have to do that? Surely this can be done with mathematical formulas? After all, the steps are very predictable. Eventually, we automated that process by linking algorithms from computer science to the chemical information. The lab robot we built can now separate a mixture completely independently.”

“The idea to automate column chromatography was born out of frustration with how things are done now”

After graduating, you worked in industry for two years. What attracted you to the PhD position when you already had a job in industry?
“Peter Schoenmakers offered me a PhD position from the UvA in collaboration with industry (the Maniac project ed.). Then I realised, at the university you can do research and teach at the same time. For me, that was the golden combination. At the same time, I feel I owe the UvA a lot; I wouldn’t leave here any time soon.”

 

What do you love about teaching?
“The number one reason I’m here is teaching. You can develop something cool at a company, or focus completely on research, but when over your lifetime you can motivate 20 students to pursue their careers, I like that growth the most.”

 

“I have no ambition to become a very successful scientist - if I were ever to be known for anything, I would rather it be the lectures I give than for an award.”

 

Did your study delay change you?
“I do really think that those four years of study delay made me look at students very differently: I will be the last one who would give up on a slightly weaker student. I also got to know myself better during that period and know what I need to perform well.”

“And above all, don’t let the performance culture drive you crazy. Getting high grades is really not as important as you think”

Do you have any tips for chemistry students?
“I would say, do what you like. That’s when you are most comfortable and do your work best. In that sense, I am not the textbook example of what a traditional career looks like. Nor have I gone abroad for a long period of time. But even that doesn’t matter at all in the end. Opportunities will always come your way, and they will come one day. And don’t let the performance culture fool you. Getting high grades is really not as important as you think. I think you can be a very happy scientist even if you are not in the highest rankings.”

 

Do you still sometimes think about teaching chemistry in high school?
“Yes, that is kind of a dream, but just like a dream it conflicts with what is possible. These days, as a scientist, you have to teach well, get grants and do good research. Ideally, you would want to be able to alternate those goals more in a research team. For instance, I would work three days a week at the UvA and teach at a secondary school two days a week. Because I do really think that as a university we have a responsibility to assist secondary schools. Chemistry, for example, is still not very diverse, and we also depend on secondary schools for that. But I fear that, for now, we can only do something about that with leisure hours.”