Transformative Power

GSC Interviews Dr. Ross Jansen-van Vuuren

We checked in with Chemist and Global Scholar, Ross Jansen-van Vuuren at a critical time in his life. Hear what it is like to be a Global Scholar on the road to what comes next.

Q: Your biography stretches across continents. What does that mean for your identity
and faith?

Although I grew up in Zimbabwe, I left in 2008 and have since lived in 4
countries. In many ways I feel like I don’t belong anywhere specifically – which can be a
good thing and a bad thing. Negatively, it’s challenging having friends and family
scattered over the globe and having to start afresh in each new place. I really miss my

Positively, I have been enriched from different life experiences and the various contexts
have given me a diverse perspective on life, and an appreciation for God’s beautiful
creation. I have also learned a lot about each of the countries I have lived in and the
beauty and diversity of other cultures. It has taught me to come with an attitude of
humility, being aware of my own biases and being willing to learn from other people. It
has challenged me to find points of connection with other people and to intentionally
build shared experiences.
I have learnt what it’s like to be a pilgrim in this world and to
make the most of my time in each location.

Moving around a lot also means that we try to put roots down wherever we live,
getting involved in the local Christian church and community and taking opportunities to
serve and spend time with people from very diverse backgrounds and cultures. We have
opportunities to pray for global events beyond media reports. We can clearly see the
Gospel is for all peoples! It’s encouraging to see how Christians in different countries live
out their faith. Not having a fixed ‘home’ or ‘future’ certainly pushes us to depend on
God and remain open to change and His leading. We’ve had to learn not to hold so tightly
to material possessions and trust God’s provision.

Living in Slovenia and attending an International Church (the International Church of
Ljubljana) has given me a new perspective on “owning my faith” as I have been a leader
in the church, preaching and being involved in decision-making. Preaching has been
challenging but is a valuable skill. I can appreciate the hard work behind running a church
now. I also really enjoy working with people from different church backgrounds and
denominations, laying aside our differences to be a unified body glorifying Christ. It is a
far cry from the Western church (in general) which feels so polarized over certain topics
these days.

What first attracted you to study chemistry?

During my undergraduate studies, I initially set out to major in Mathematics. However,
the chemistry department at Rhodes University (South Africa) was, at the time, very
dynamic and friendly, and demonstrated for me, the power of chemistry to make a
difference in everyday life
. Industrial projects (in which groups developed and marketed a
product of their choice) along with a 4 th year research project for my BSc (Hons), gave me
the confidence to embrace the transforming power of chemistry.

How does your scholarship and your faith work together?

Living a life of integrity. Due to the perceived stressful nature of life in academia and
the capacity for student mentorship (and living out one’s faith in front of a secular/non-Christian audience), having discipline and integrity and demonstrating the fruits
of the Spirit can all be an effective witness.

Creativity and wonder at God’s world. Curiosity at how things work and pursuing
research in fields with limited knowledge (despite some risk involved).

Being faithful with the talents God has given me. Redeeming the world through my
knowledge about chemistry, e.g., projects focused on Sustainability (Caring for
God’s Creation; this is also a simple justice issue since resource management affects the
global population).

What kind of research are you doing and why?

I am involved in several research projects. My major project focuses on the development
of immobilized and recyclable (bio)catalysts for certain chemical processes which
currently rely on rare metal catalysts (e.g., contain Iridium) which are challenging and
expensive to recover and reuse. We have developed a system which involves the
attachment of a known metal catalyst to a macromolecule (like a polymer) which can
easily be recovered from the reaction mixture and reused.

The major challenge lies in ensuring that the activity of the supported catalyst is similar to
or better than the parent catalyst. We are in the process of exploring ways to extend this
work to flow chemistry –recognized by the IUPAC in 2019 as one of “Ten Chemical
Innovations That Will Change Our World”, referring specifically to emerging
technologies in chemistry with the potential to make our planet more sustainable
( Gomollón-Bel, 2019 ).

I am also interested in the sustainable synthesis of deuterated organic compounds.
Currently, three deuterated drugs have been approved for production and use by the FDA.
This has ignited interest in the synthesis of other deuterated drugs (and deuterated
compounds for other applications e.g., in organic electronics). There is quite a big
movement to develop sustainable methods for the preparation of these compounds, a
niche area that has historically been characterized by the use of acids and bases and high
temperature conditions (not particularly green). There are plenty of opportunities for
researching new greener/more sustainable approaches to this chemistry.
I am also involved in several smaller projects which involve developing new materials
from [2.2]para-cyclophanes and pyridinium ylides, and I am contributing to a project
focused on synthesis and testing of new biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease and draw
agents for Forward Osmosis (a new water purification technology). Chemistry is a lot of
fun but also hard work, and not so glamorous most of the time. However, obtaining an
exciting and impactful result is always rewarding!

28th Annual Meeting of the Slovenian Chemical Society

What is your vision for life after your post-doc?

Good question! I would like to be led by God to a place where my wife and I can both
serve and contribute. I don’t have a set plan. There are some things that I’d probably like
to do – one is to try and get a permanent position as an academic in a university in
Canada or Eastern Europe. Ideally, I’d like to be in a place where I have more autonomy
and can lead my own research group. However, I have learned to take opportunities, but
to leave the outcome to the Lord. This has led to many unexpected blessings such as being able to come to Slovenia and live here for 2 years (I will also be in Gothenburg for
3 months and Germany for 1 month later in the year).

I dream of starting up a chemistry group which focuses on “Chemistry for Conservation”
as my heart still partially belongs to Zimbabwe, my homeland, and there are many
problems with poverty-related poaching, waterhole poisoning, and deforestation.
At this
point I’m not quite sure how to apply my chemistry skills and knowledge to
such a challenge, but it may be a future opportunity as the Lord leads!
Another factor I am considering: my father (based in Zimbabwe) has just spent a year
battling cancer – I will visit him over Easter 2023 for 2 weeks. This has caused me
to question whether I need to return to Zimbabwe for a few years to support him more as
he ages (he is currently quite capable, both physically and mentally). But again, I’m not
sure how supporting him and my wider family would look like practically.

Who were your mentors and what did they teach you?

I have had Christian mentors as well as academic mentors (and some were both!).
During my Ph.D. and initial postdoc years in Australia, I was mentored by Professor Ross
McKenzie. We attended the same church and I also went to a Bible study he hosted for
International students/workers. I also knew Ross through a group of academics at the
University of Queensland (UQ) who used to meet for Bible study on a weekly basis. Ross
demonstrated what it meant to live as a Christian academic, balancing a busy and
demanding schedule with activities and decisions which demonstrated his prioritization of
God’s kingdom.

I am also grateful to one of the pastors of our church (St Lucia Bible Church), David Pitt,
who discipled me during my last few years in Australia before leaving for Canada in
2017. While in Canada, Professor David Lyon was a great mentor (personal and professional)
and friend. I often sought advice from him on big and small decisions. David also invited
me to join the Queen’s Faculty Bible Study and supported me in initiating and running a
symposium for Christian academics at Queen’s (link). We spent quite a bit of time with
him and Sue (his wife) at their home and visited them at their lovely cottage during the

Academically, I appreciated mentorship by professors Philip Jessop and Victor Snieckus
(Queen’s University) and Professor Janez Košmrlj at the University of Ljubljana, where I
am currently based. Professor Jessop helped me learn how to write journal articles and
grants more effectively. I appreciated his humble approach and the way he was happy to
let students/postdocs have autonomy over their research (cf. not micromanaging).
Professor Victor Snieckus passed away while I was working as a postdoc for him at the
end of 2020. I appreciated the personal interest and concern he had for students, past and
present (perhaps something to do with his Lithuanian roots?). He regularly kept up with
most of his past students, as demonstrated by a huge gathering on Zoom to celebrate his
life following his passing. The commitment of a supervisor to keep up with past students
(including his first ever Ph.D. student from the 1980s) was something I hadn’t
encountered previously, and I found inspirational! He also had an incredible memory and knowledge about world affairs, and easily connected with people from diverse walks of life (as evidenced in the range of nationalities of his collaborators).

You’ve recently had an accident bicycling. Has that given you some time to reflect on
life and faith and vocation?

Yes! I’m still recovering strength in my right leg, but am so thankful that the fracture of
my hip has healed. The first 3 months I was mainly confined to our apartment, and I also
spent 2 weeks at one of Slovenia’s premier thermal spas, with intense physio and rehab.
During this 2-week period, as the youngest (by far) person in the program, I got to spend
time with people in the last chapter of their life. This is always eye-opening and caused
me to reflect and consider what I may have achieved with my life when reaching the age
of 70+.

Also, I am realizing I am not so much in control. I certainly get frustrated with not being
able to do things I took for granted and with changes in my plans. The accident
highlighted some of my struggles with wanting to be independent and in control.
I have
wrestled with God – including some ideas of His goodness. I am currently doing a STEPS
course (run through Christ College), a 12-step Christian process designed to help me in a
positive and self-affirming way to address negative behavioural patterns in my life.
Vocationally, I was initially frustrated as I believed that this would set me back quite
considerably (not what I wanted while on a time-limited fellowship in Europe!).
However, I gradually realized that being based at home meant I could focus more on
writing journal articles that had been pushed aside and I’m thankful for some wonderful
students who have kept the lab work going!

However, I’ve also been incredibly blessed by all the help I have received, especially
when Julia was in Canada working when the accident happened. It’s shown me the
blessing of a Christian community who have practically loved and supported me like a
family. I’ve also been blessed and encouraged by work colleagues and it’s an opportunity
to witness to them by showing my vulnerability. I’m now so thankful to finally be
walking, and even hiking, again, but I know I should never take it for granted!

Thank you Dr. Jansen-van Vuuren for sharing with us.

~Just as Global Scholars take risks in a number of ways when they determine to ask where they might take their degree, over where their degree might take them; a serious bike accident can also serve to highlight aspects of that faithful step into the uncertain, unfamiliar and unknown. Undoubtedly the chemistry behind the marvels that are today’s pain medications were a gift toward healing, but it would appear a renewed sense of community can prove the more transforming!

Previous Article
Next Article