From student award to crop protection expert

Ever heard of the butterfly effect or how a small seed can turn into an inspirational personal story? We sat down with Ghent University professor Pieter Spanoghe and traced back the steps that led him to his current path as crop protection expert and chair of the 14th IUPAC Conference on Crop Protection Chemistry. A story about how a fascination for antique farm tools resulted in winning a European Student Award trip to Basel and the realization of two dreams

At the next IUPAC conference Pieter Spanoghe wants to give back and provide some similar opportunities for young students and scientists in the hope that they will never give up on their own dreams.

His passion for agriculture started at the young age of eight after a visit to a farm museum which resulted in a personal collection of antique farm tools. “35 years later it is still a hobby of mine and I will soon make some modifications to my home to make a little museum myself”, says professor Pieter Spanoghe. At present, he is the head of a research group in crop protection at Ghent University and he also is the chair of the 14th IUPAC Conference on Crop Protection Chemistry.

But how did he get there? Still intrigued by the world of agriculture during his master’s study in chemistry, Pieter participated in the European CIBA (Chemical Industry Basel) Novartis Agricultural Student Award in 1997. The contest was organised by the company now known as Syngenta. Laureates received a financial prize and a visit to their headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. “We had to write a four-page vision paper on the importance of sustainable agriculture in a future European economic perspective”, prof. Spanoghe reflects back on the contest. “I ended my essay with the statement: ‘Sustainable agriculture can only succeeds when mankind is willing to change their attitude’. I still believe this is true today”. With that strong conclusion, the essay of Pieter was selected and during the next Easter holiday he, together with the other European winners, enjoyed a life enriching trip to Switzerland.

Realization of two dreams

After graduating and still overwhelmed by the grandeur and efficiency of a major crop protection R&D player like CIBA Novartis, Pieter successfully applied for a two-month student job at the company as a lab technician within the field of insecticide screening. “This implied that I had to give up my last chance to have a 3 month summer holiday before joining the work force. However, this opportunity was too valuable to throw away”, Pieter continues. “The training I received there significantly improved my knowledge and hands-on experience. Nevertheless, for my future career, I desired some more autonomy and leadership.”

Therefore, Pieter performed a PhD study at Ghent University concerning the physicochemical characteristics of the formulation and the atomisation aspects of crop protection products and its additional drift issues. Subsequently, he was appointed as a doctoral assistant on chemical crop protection where he investigated, among others, the residues of crop protection products in food, worker exposure to crop protection products and biopurification systems. In 2012 Pieter realized one of his dreams and he became professor and head of the department Phytopharmacy at Ghent University. Soon, he will be able to realize his second dream: organising the next IUPAC conference.

“The IUPAC international Congress of Crop Protection Chemistry is held every four years and is considered as the Olympic Games on this specific research topic”, says prof. Spanoghe. “The first one that I had attended was coincidently also held in Basel, Switzerland in 2002.” After seven years of helping to organise the International Symposium on Crop Protection (ISCP) at Ghent University, Pieter had gained the necessary courage and successfully applied for the organisation of the 14th IUPAC Congress on Crop Protection Chemistry.

Education of the Future Generation

“Now you know why I chose ‘Crop Protection: Education of the Future Generation’ as the conference theme”, says Pieter. ”Young people are unwritten pages and we have the opportunity and responsibility to create a future generation of critical thinking human beings. The IUPAC congress is in my opinion the perfect occasion to involve the next generation of scientists and farmers to make them more aware of the role of crop protection in a global and sustainable food production system.”

Prof. Pieter Spanoghe: “If we get enough financial support from the industry we will organise several opportunities to involve the youth in the IUPAC congress. Firstly, we want to provide student grants to young master students and PhD scientists of developing countries, as was the case for the previous edition. Secondly, we wish to organise a Youth Agrisummit with a dedicated program designed by and for agricultural students, including a meet & greet with the plenary speakers. Thirdly, we want to draft an online Youth Agripreneur Contest in which five young entrepreneurs will have the chance to pitch their innovative idea at the IUPAC congress, to receive some coaching and seed funding. The 15 runner ups will also be invited to attend the congress and participate in workshops around, for example, communication skills.”

“In the end I hope this 14th IUPAC International Congress of Crop Protection Chemistry will serve as a springboard for a few young scientists and will inspire them to pursue their own dreams, just like the former CIBA Novartis Agricultural Student Award inspired me.”