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Sitting Down With a Chromatography Icon: Pat Sandra

By Jaap de Zeeuw

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Pat Sandra is a widely known scientist who has made an indelible mark on the development of chromatography. Pat has written hundreds of publications in peer-reviewed journals and is a well-known speaker at prestigious events around the world. He started his own chromatography group, the RIC group in Kortrijk, Belgium, that focuses on separation science and mass spectrometry. As a long-time professor at the Ghent University, from which he recently retired, he has supported many scholarships and international cooperations with numerous universities and companies. Pat was also the driving force behind the popular symposium on capillary separation techniques that is organized biannually in Riva del Garda, Italy.

Q: How did you get into the world of chemistry?

A: I became interested in chemistry because I had a very good teacher. He could present the science in such a way that it triggered my interest. Until that time, I had absolutely no idea about chemistry because I had a classical education, meaning languages like Latin and Greek. That means 20 hours of languages and just one hour of physics and one hour of chemistry, so I had no idea what chemistry or physics were about. Those were the base studies for becoming a doctor or pharmacist.

My brother was one year older than me; he was studying medicine. So, I decided to do chemistry.

I had absolutely no intention of making a career in chemistry. By age 15 to 16, I was a semiprofessional basketball player. I was playing in the national junior team, the national military team, and training four times per week. So, I was initially on the way to becoming an athlete. But you need also a job, so I could become a teacher of chemistry for 18- to 20-year-old students. At a certain time, you get bitten by the “microbes of chemistry,” and you develop a real interest.

My interest for analytical chemistry developed after some company visits. Visits to Douwe Egberts and Heineken intrigued me because they did analysis on coffee profiling and bitterness, which was very interesting. I got a chance to work in the academic hospital, where they wanted someone to measure sugars and amino acids in eye membrane, but the dean of the faculty of science, Professor Verzele, did not want me to move to the faculty of medicine. I prepared two theses, both on the chemistry of beer. One was for my masters—GC of amino acids and sugars with derivatization—which I finished in 1968–69. The second thesis was related to the impact of hops on the taste and aroma of beer. In that project, I focused on the first capillary columns using the static coating technique from Bush/Verzele. This was the moment when I developed a special interest for chromatography and mass spectroscopy.

I was graduating in 1975 and presented some talks at a beer convention. The preparation of GC columns did not really interest me, but I needed good columns for my work. So developments were started with glass capillaries, flexible columns, immobilization of phases, and different deactivation techniques. This was a glory period for gas chromatography, as everything being done was new. There were four groups working on phase immobilization at the same time: Walt Jennings, Kurt Grob, Milton Lee, and me. It was a big development when, suddenly, you could rinse GC columns!

Q: What do you see as your biggest personal achievement?

A: I have succeeded in building up an institute on separation science that is purely scientific. Of course, you also have to be commercial as you need to pay the bills. Now we have another success period with all of the bio-drugs. This gave me a lot of freedom, and I could do what I valued as interesting or important. It allowed me to get away from the university because some of my professors and I had different areas of interest.

Another important decision I made in my career is that I have not limited myself to just one discipline. I worked in capillary GC, but also in electrophoresis, LC, and SFC, and I have applied these techniques in many application fields. Some of my students preparing their Ph.D. in the industry are also highly involved in comprehensive GC using hyphenated systems like GCxGC-TOF and produce very impressive data.

I have always respected Nol Venema of Akzo. He was unique because, as a scientist, he had a very good overview for the needs and challenges of different applied sciences in his industry. In contrast with my colleagues in my discipline, I also had a strong background in organic chemistry, which gave me a big advantage. For example the PCB crisis in Belgium was purely based on organic chemistry, not how the analysis was done.

Q: What are the biggest challenges chromatographers face?

A: The application fields must be re-evaluated because they will get you into trouble. Users take the data that their equipment produces for granted; they don’t know what happens inside the instrument.

People use extremely complex techniques like GCxGC, but many don’t even know how many plates a certain column dimension produces. Then, you see posters where they apply this complex technique for separation of just 10 peaks. That’s really sad. They are guided by advertisements and commercial developments without a fundamental education in that field. Also, in the Netherlands, the whole center of excellence on GC at University Eindhoven has disappeared.

There is no interest in fundamentals, and the problem I also see with my students is that they are all heavily involved with computer. They work 80% behind the PC and 10% behind the instrumentation.

You also see this problem in industry. Systems are requested that are absolutely not needed. I remember I received an inquiry from a food company. They had to look for antibiotics, like chloramphenicol. They ordered test equipment, valued at $250,000, and then they asked if it could be placed next to the coffee machine and if the secretary could operate the equipment.

Q: What was your funniest experience?

A: I received a chromatogram from one of my technicians when he first used hydrogen as carrier gas. In the first chromatogram with hydrogen, he saw a lot of spike. The head of the department said, “Those are dust particles in the hydrogen, but if you put the H2-cylinder on the floor horizontally, then these particles will deposit faster and you can eliminate the spikes.”

Q: How did you find the location for Riva?

A: It all started with Rudolf Kaiser in 1981 with the 4th Hindelang symposium. I was already a member of the scientific committee. In this year, Rudi asked me to take over the lead of the event. I was just 35 years old, and my contacts with the university were not very strong, so I agreed. In the same time, I also was invited by Trestianu to be a consultant for Carlo Erba. In those days, the best GCs were made by Carlo Erba. Through these contacts, we found the Riva location. There was no money, but in 1983 with support of Carlo Erba, we started the first of a tradition of symposia in Riva del Garda with about 400 participants. In that time, Jacques Rijks was also helping with the organization. Shortly after that, I started to work closely with Hewlett Packard because they could help me to become independent from the university, something that Carlo Erba was not able to do, although we always stayed good friends.

Riva remains successful because it has the right combination of activities: a good technical and social program, interaction with vendors, not too expensive, and perfect location for networking.

Q: Did your travels always go smoothly?

A: A lot happens, but that is part of travel. Once, coming from Atlantic City with Martine, we had a bomb threat and had to land in Amsterdam. Once, they realized that the nose of a 747 was not closed after flying for seven hours. Also, at a symposium, an earthquake occurred, and you suddenly saw the slide projection start to dance and heard the doors rattling.

Q: Have you considered building a commercial column business?

A: I started with a friend a company called Rescom. We made a few hundred columns per month. The moment Walt Jennings started with $300 columns, there was no way to compete on this scale. If you calculated the costs, you would make $10 profit for one column. You cannot develop a business on such margins. I always admired that Chrompack in the Netherlands was able to develop a profitable column business. At the university, we made special columns like a glass whisker capillary column with Carbowax 400. I also made special stationary phases for triglycerides in my kitchen, based on polycondensation.

Q: What about your children and chromatography?

A: I have never encouraged my children to do what I do, although it is much easier if one of your children can be your successor. Tom is a chemical engineer, and Koen has a Ph.D. in analytical biochemistry. I never pushed them to do this. Both are working at the RIC, as well as both of my daughters-in-law.

Q: Where did you meet Martine?

A: Martine was a sister of a friend of mine. Aside from basketball, I also played guitar, and we had a band called the “Balladins.” We gave performances and also played in Belgium at the pre-program of Boudewijn de Groot. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Boudewijn de Groot is a famous Dutch singer/songwriter.] Martine’s brother was part of the band, so Martine also travelled with us when we toured. We clicked. I was 19 years old, and we got married when I was 22. In Belgium, they had a special system: You received “child benefits” as long as you were in school. These benefits lasted until you were 25. So by being married, we received child benefits through Martine because I was still seen as a student.

Q: Is Martine interested in chromatography?

A: Yes, Martine was also interested in separation techniques. RIC started in our garage, and Martine was a microbiologist. She worked in a clinical lab. When we started, she also did practical work with chromatographs. When we had our children, she could spend less time, but still she kept an interest.

Q: What about living in Belgium?

A: I am happy to live in Belgium, but I am glad I have the opportunity to be in other countries, too. The two countries that are most dear to me are South Africa and Portugal. I have taught at the Stellenbosch University in South Africa for 10 years and also at the University of Evora in Portugal, and I immediately felt at home in both countries. I go to the Algarve at least two to three times per year. If Martine agreed, I would buy some property there tomorrow.

Q: Any special hobbies?

A: I do not really have hobbies, but what we had been doing a lot when I was at the top of my career was horseback riding. We had our own horses, and that is something I would like to do again. The freedom you experience when you are on a horse is unique. The interest started because there was a stable next door to where we lived. We got our first horse there, and we could see it from our bedroom window. Martine was very good at horse riding, and Tom has all of the certificates for horse riding. As time passed, and RIC was growing, there was no longer time to do it.

Q: What are you going to do now that you are officially “retired” and Riva is in the hands of Luigi Mondello?

A: I will start a new company, which I am calling PaSaTiempo. That company will deal with all the things that nobody else wants to touch. [EDITOR’S NOTE: See Retirement of Professor Sandra: Surprise Party.. for more information.] This is what I have tried to do my whole life. And of course, I like to work behind the instrumentation, so being a little more “hands-on” is something I am also looking forward to. But before that, I will take a sabbatical.

Q: What do you think of Restek?

A: The philosophy of the company has always intrigued me. What Paul started amazed me, as do the mentality of the people and the fact that the company is not pushy at all. Restek has good products. That was already the case in the early days, when your PEG columns outperformed all others. I believe that this way of operating is a good way to earn credibility and create a good climate for innovation.