Long journey from BSc ECP student to PhD in Chemistry

It must have been his late mother’s incredibly tasty cheese sauce that made him fall in love with chemistry.

“I always wanted to know how she made it, with which ingredients, and in what order! I think that is where my interest in chemistry first started,” recalls Emile Maggott. This former learner from Bishop Lavis High School in Cape Town will be walking over the stage at Stellenbosch University’s December graduation ceremony to be capped with a PhD in Chemistry.

His journey, however, has been rougher than most.

Growing up in a neighbourhood that is mostly known to the outside world for unemployment, poverty, and gangsterism, he had to make a deliberate choice to maintain a positive mind set – a belief that one day he would be able to rise out of the historically-imposed circumstances.

“My brother and I got this mind set from my mother. She was a factory worker, and she was very strict. And even though my mother could not spoil me with money and other fancy things, I had a good upbringing. There was lots of love in our household and always a plate of food waiting in the oven when I returned from the lab, sometimes close to midnight,” he recounts.

Emile’s journey started when he realised that his marks were not good enough to study medicine. “Even though I was strong in mathematics and physical sciences, I was lacking in other subjects. I thought of engineering, but then the Science Faculty’s academic coordinator, Wilma Wagener, convinced me to enter a BSc Extended Curriculum Programme (ECP) in the Faculty of Science,” he explains.

“In hindsight, that was one of the best decisions I could have made,” he adds.

“There is a huge gap between matric and first year at university. At school we were spoon fed, but already in the first two weeks of class at university I realised that I would either have to swim or sink! I very quickly had to learn how to figure things out for myself. I believe that, even though it took me one year longer to complete the BSc-degree, the EDP provided me with a solid foundation to manage and succeed in my studies.”

This propensity to “figure things out for himself” has continued into his approach to his doctoral research: “I am motivated by sitting down and really figuring things out. Some people simply jump to the next topic when they are struggling, which is probably easy to do. I would rather make mistakes and learn from it than give up.”

However, sometimes even someone with a positive mind set had to learn the hard way, especially from an old-school supervisor such as Prof. Selwyn Mapolie from the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science. Emile recounts one incident from his MSc studies when Prof. Mapolie very sternly sent him back to the lab bench to go and figure things out, because that is what researchers do.

“During one of our progress meetings, I made the mistake of saying ‘I don’t know’. He replied and said that a researcher cannot not know what he is doing. ‘You should be asking yourself why all the time and go and figure it out’, he said!”

A stained and very dirty blue lab coat bears testimony to this attitude. The dark blue stains, for example, come from the very first experiment which involved a Schiff-base reaction and resulted in the spattering of the reactants which was due to a concentration effect.

Life threw another curve ball at him when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Overnight, postgraduate students’ access to laboratories was first restricted and later strictly regulated. He often worked through the night, sometimes even catching a quick nap in between, to perform all the experiments required for his research. There was no time to waste, as funding was only available for four years.

But the biggest setback came late in 2022 on his birthday when his mother, the late Mrs Ursula Maggott, died of diabetes-related complications. He then had to learn how to deal with bouts of depression, sometimes by just going into the lab and doing one task for the day, other times by exercising and regularly walking his two German Shepard dogs.

Fortunately, though, he did learn the name of the secret ingredient that made his mother’s cheese sauce stand out from all others, as well as how to prepare the best sweet and sour lentil curry in the Western Cape.

As far as his research is concerned, he is in the process of finalising a second research article to be published from his doctoral dissertation and has applied for a Consolidoc position in the department to finalise another two research articles.

In his research, Dr Maggott succeeded in identifying a range of recyclable catalysts (from a potential group of 35 candidates). These materials were used as catalyst precursors in oxidative transformations in which the reaction can be fine-tuned by converting biomass substrates (waste materials) into value-added products. The high value oxygenates is particularly useful in the pharmaceutical, perfume, flavourant, cosmetic and biofuel industry.

“The research is novel, firstly, because it is the first time that these type of catalyst systems have been used in the proposed applications. Secondly, during the synthetic process we incorporate cheap and earth-abundant metals which ultimately contributes to a greener society. And thirdly, the overall process is fine-tuned, which means that we can selectively produce the desired compound (the more valuable product). This in essence makes the process greener and more sustainable since it reduces downstream separation processes,” he explains.

Having presented papers at international conferences in Spain, Italy, and Germany, he is eager to spread his wings again: “There is still a lot of things to figure out!”, he concludes.