Professor Egmont Rohwer awarded prestigious Georg Forster Award

by Primarashni Gower (This article first appeared on the University of Pretoria website: 18 February 2019)

Professor Egmont Rohwer, who heads the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Mass Spectrometry and Chromatography Laboratory in the Department of Chemistry, was recently awarded the prestigious Georg Forster award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany.

Every year, the Foundation enables more than 2 000 researchers from all over the world to spend time researching in Germany. It maintains a network of more than 29 000 Humboldtians from all disciplines in more than 140 countries worldwide – including 55 Nobel Prize winners.

The Georg Forster Award honours researchers from developing and transition countries who have earned international recognition for their research work and aim to solve development-related issues. Award winners are nominated by specialist colleagues from Germany and are invited to establish or expand co-operation with them.

Prof Rohwer, former head of UP’s Department of Chemistry, has been given a research award for cooperation with specialist colleagues at the University of Rostock and the Helmholtz Zentrum Munich – German Research Centre for Environmental Health.

“I am grateful and extremely proud to receive the Georg Forster prize, because it is public recognition for what I stood for during my long career as a scientist and analytical chemist: to make a difference in the socio-economic realities of our country and continent with my own specialist academic expertise,” Prof Rohwer said. “Together with many others, I believe developing countries deserve the latest in science and technology, to avoid the past mistakes made in the affluent countries of the world.”  

Prof Rohwer’s research at UP since 1983 focuses on chromatography and mass spectrometry in order to establish the chemical composition of complex mixtures. “This is done to address research problems in fields ranging from engineering, biology, geology and archaeology to forensic, environmental, medical and food sciences, ” he explained. A project presently led by Prof Emil Roduner and Dr Shankara Radhakrishnan that aims to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide to liquid fuels was initiated by Prof Rohwer six years ago.

He was introduced to mass spectrometry during his early training in physical chemistry, studying the kinetic energy release of ions fragmenting in the field free regions of a double focusing mass spectrometer. The fundamental approach required for such studies remains the hallmark of his subsequent career in analytical chemistry, with specialisation in chromatography and mass spectrometry, first in industry and since 1983 in academia.

As an academic driven by a childlike curiosity as well as a desire to contribute to the development of society in his native country and continent, Prof Rohwer dedicated his research to projects that combine innovative new methods for tackling the global “grand challenges” of education, job creation, health, environment, safety and security as well as sustainable energy, food and water resources.

In hindsight, Prof Rohwer considers himself “one of the luckiest researchers in the world” for having been in a position to make useful contributions on widely differing themes including  health (malaria eradication, tuberculosis diagnosis, endocrine disruptors, occupational health of mineworkers), energy (synthetic fuels from coal and gas via the Fischer-Tropsch process, and synthetic fuels with no carbon footprint from renewable solar energy), food and beverages (novel aroma assessment methods that allow investigation of the human smell sensation when bouquets of compounds rather than single compounds are perceived), as well as environmental pollution assessment (persistent organic pollutants like dioxins and DDT, endocrine disruptors, detection and the fate of anti-retroviral pharmaceuticals in open fresh water sources).  

“Academia to me is a place where the long-term interests of populations have to be campaigned and worked for, as other powerful drivers of the modern society, for example government and the market economy, are often hamstrung in this task – as they have to survive by short-term popularity and rewards. The general inability to act decisively on global warming is just one example.”

He said he is reminded of the words of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “‘The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.’ As a chemist, I have made a strong plea for South Africa to enter seriously into research for efficient conversion of CO2 to liquid fuel with renewable energy, a technology that one day could not only mitigate global warming, but also could earn the foreign currency required to build up our country. Our huge solar energy potential could emerge as possibly our largest national resource.”

His present projects include the analysis of insect pheromones and human skin volatiles with in-house developed sampling technology and state-of-the-art chromatography and mass spectrometry instrumentation. The aim of this work is to search for combinations of compounds that are attractive to agricultural pests and mosquitoes, to be used as baits for monitoring and control purposes. Patterns of skin-volatiles (metabolic profiles) are also searched that are associated with specific illnesses, for future non-invasive and point-of-care diagnosis of malaria and tuberculosis.

His Mass Spectrometry and Chromatography Laboratory was supported by SASOL as a strategic national asset for many years. He has 95 publications in international specialist journals and holds a number of patents. He has been the main supervisor of 27 Master of Science students and 15 PhD graduates. Prof Rohwer spent two years at the Technical University of Munich as a Humboldt stipendiate and twice received the UP Exceptional Academic Achiever award. He has a B2 rating from the National Research Foundation, in recognition of his high-quality research outputs.

He thanked his postgraduate students, colleagues, co-workers and sponsors, “without whom any realisation of my research dreams would have been totally impossible. They have enriched my life. My wish is that everyone may receive recognition in the long run, for sharing the belief that fundamental understanding, applied research, teaching and team-work operate synergistically to build a world-class university.”

Prof Rohwer invited “the bright young minds entering university to consider science as a career, trusting it will also provide them with the challenges as well as meaning they need for their lives”.

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