A Visit With Peter Schoenmakers
Peter Schoenmakers was recently honored in Boston, presenting a distinguished lecture at a joint meeting of the Massachusetts Separations Society and the Greater Boston Mass Spectrometry Discussion Group. Peter had worked as a graduate student with Dr. Karger during the "HPLC era" of the Institute in the 1970's, and also with de Galan in Delft. As one of the earliest graduates entering the workforce with a thorough grounding in the mechanisms and theory of chromatography, he was incredibly lucky to be in the right place and time to pioneer the emerging technique of HPLC in two high-impact fields of industrial R&D. He worked with polymers at Philips, then later with petroleum products at Shell.
This was a unparalleled opportunity to explore the limits of various HPLC techniques while working closely with experts in each application about which molecular properties were of interest, how they could be accessed chromatographically, and possibly be applied industrially. It has created an expertise which in all likelihood is irreproducible, and Dr. Schoenmakers is an international treasure.
Appropriately, Peter is currently a chair in Analytical Chemistry and its applications in the forensic sciences, at the University of Amsterdam. The world is lucky as well that it was such an animated and engaging character thrown into these experiences.
An inspired teacher, his fascination and fluency were contagious in his lecture on the merits and limitations of 2D chromatography. Greased with his humor: "In this GCxGC chromatogram we can count 6000 peaks; as a single column it would have to have 5 billion plates. This used to be a large number -- until we had to save Greece! But it's still a large number of plates ... a single column would have to be a very long column -- from Amsterdam to Boston, it would take about 4 months to see the first peak."
Taking HPLC to a New Level
Peter as a graduate student met Dr. Karger at the 1977 HPLC conference in Salzburg. Few readers will remember the day when presenting posters at conferences was a new idea, but Huber introduced it to the HPLC conferences that year. Each of the 20 poster presenters was given a classroom, so "the poster was constrained to 24 feet of wall space." Many important people came to Peter's poster, largely because he was using gradients, which were new. In talking through his poster with Dr. Karger, Peter realized he could take his research to a new level. Dr. Karger was receptive, but warned "come quick, because I'm organizing a sabbatical to Israel". So off Peter went, in the second year of his PhD with de Galan.
His goals at the Barnett were "simply to learn LC better"; to define and describe the parameters that controlled RP LC. He was a younger member of the group, although he had done retention studies and early gradient studies. The question of the day was how much the separation was controlled within the mobile phase or the stationary phase.
"The teaching in that era was exceptional ... putting into classes what was emerging in the literature. Also, classes were generally at night, which left the days open to experiment and nighttime was the right time to mull over the theory and literature against the day's experience, get ideas to try the next day.
"It was a coup to bring in Tomas Hirschfeld to teach. He was a controversial figure in many ways; as much a philosopher as a scientist. He was a most excellent arguer. I remember his arguments about why FT-IR made sense but FT-UV did not; and no manufacturers tried to do FT-UV when he was active. But after he passed on I began to hear about people trying to do FT-UV, and it never worked, for just the reasons he said."
"You were always welcome to argue with him. Although you would never win, you learned whetever you were arguing about much more thoroughly than you could have by doing homework. And most importantly, you learned to be a player."
Advice to Students:
"Look for the good people. You will learn much more from them than the technical detail you could just get from books. What's most valuable is the context -- how analysis fits into the other fields you are working for; how to present it, to tell people what they're asking. Or what they really need."
by Roger Kautz, May 2010Return to Alumni Page>>