The institutional theme at Stellenbosch University (SU) for May this year is “Connected to Africa” and on 25 May we celebrated Africa Day with the rest of the world. SU has nurtured relationships with many institutions in other African countries over the past decades and our academics are collaborating with top scientists on the continent. In this series, we showcase a few of the SU academics who epitomise academic excellence through a meaningful footprint in the African context.
Prof Delia Haynes, a chemist at the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, was elected as the first President of the African Crystallographic Association (AfCA) in 2021. Her research focuses on crystal engineering with multi-component crystals, and she is passionate about the potential of crystallography to impact research in other sciences to solve problems of importance in Africa.
Could you tell us more about your background and how it led you to your research focus ty?
I did my undergraduate degree majoring in chemistry and genetics at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. I actually did my BSc (Hons) in molecular genetics, but I worked in the chemistry research labs during my holidays, and I really loved it, so I decided to do my masters and PhD in chemistry.
After that I did an MPhil and then a PhD in inorganic chemistry at Cambridge University in the UK. My supervisor was Dr Jeremy Rawson, and I graduated in 2002. My research involved making a series of molecules, and investigating how changing the molecule slightly changed the way the molecules were arranged in the crystal – a classic crystal engineering study.
I only learnt the phrase ‘crystal engineering’ during my PhD; it was a pretty new field at the time. It was during my PhD that I realised how much I enjoyed working with crystals.
After this, I did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Pfizer Institute for Pharmaceutical Materials Science, which was based in the Chemistry Department at Cambridge University. My supervisors were Prof Bill Jones and Sam Motherwell. During my postdoc I worked with multi-component crystals, again from a crystal engineering perspective.
Could you describe some of the specific research projects you are currently working on and their potential impact in the African context?
My group does research in a number of related areas. Currently, we are looking at the effect of high pressure on the crystal structures, and hence the properties, of materials. We are also investigating sublimation (growing crystals directly from the gas phase) as a way of producing new crystal forms, or selectively producing one crystal form over another.
My research is largely fundamental, so it is difficult to say what the potential impact might be! However, all research has a significant impact: producing highly skilled problem-solvers in the form of postgraduate students.
As President of AfCA, could you speak to the importance of promoting crystallography research in Africa and other underrepresented regions?
Crystallography as a technique underpins many other sciences. It is important in mining, agriculture, materials, pharmaceuticals, and biology. Interestingly enough, crystallography played a key role in understanding the COVID-19 virus. This means that crystallography is a key technique in solving many problems of importance of the African continent. To name two specific examples – crystallography has been used to develop water-purifiers based on diatomaceous earth, and to develop drugs against malaria.
Developing expertise in crystallography in Africa, and in the developing world in general, will allow African researchers to use this technique to solve problems of interest to them, instead of having to rely completely on collaborators in the developed world.
How do you see your work contributing to the advancement of the scientific community in Africa and beyond?
AfCA’s work has the potential to bring about real change. Specifically important here are training schools that happen in Africa, community-building, and the development of networks.
I am also involved in an exciting project to allow remote access to crystallography equipment in labs. Many researchers in Africa do not have access to the equipment needed to do crystallography as it is expensive and requires certain infrastructure that can be challenging. This RemoteLab project will allow researchers to connect to an instrument remotely using an internet connection and run their own experiments.
This project is already running through the crystallography lab at the University of Lorraine in France, and we are currently expanding this to include our crystallography lab in Stellenbosch.
Could you describe collaborations you have had with academics from other African countries and the benefits of such collaborations?
I have collaborated formally with Prof Justin Nenwa from the University of Yaoundé 1 in Cameroon. I am currently developing a collaboration with Prof Patrice Kenfack Tsobnang from the University of Dschang, also in Cameroon. Both of these have been supported by an Africa Collaboration Grant from SU.
For me the benefit of these collaborations is that I get to work with new types of systems and different types of materials that we do not make in my lab.
What advice would you give to young scientists looking to pursue a career in crystal engineering or a related field?
Read a lot, and widely. Don’t just stick to your field. And try to keep up to date – the field of crystal engineering is developing quite fast. Focus on the research you get excited about, not on what you think you should do. You have to love what you do!
How do you see the field of crystal engineering evolving in the future, and what potential impact could this have on society?
Crystal engineering has already evolved a lot as a discipline. This is particularly clear in the area of metal-organic frameworks, where researchers are now able to design a crystal with a particular desired arrangement of molecules. These materials, designed by crystal engineers, have potential application in the storage of gas (e.g. for methane-powered cars), absorption of CO2, drug delivery and many other things.
I think that as the field evolves, we will start to see better design of functional organic crystals. The area of crystal structure prediction is evolving very fast, and in a very exciting way. Stimulus-responsive materials are also showing some very exciting developments, as are soft crystals (crystals that bend or reshape without breaking).
Could you describe a particularly memorable or exciting project or finding from your research career so far?
The most exciting finding for me is one that sounds a bit obscure – we discovered that crystals of organic salts can be grown from the gas phase. This was a very unexpected result and opened up a whole new field of research for my group.
In collaboration with the group of Prof Pance Naumov from NYU Abu Dhabi, we also found that bending a crystal can change its magnetic properties.
Could you describe your experience working at SU and how it has shaped your research career?
At SU I have been able to work together with some of the top supramolecular chemists in South Africa. Thanks to Prof Len Barbour, I have access to a very well-equipped laboratory for the characterisation of crystalline materials, which is super.
Thanks to my colleagues at SU, I have started to research porous materials, and to use computational chemistry in my research. This would probably not have happened if I did not work with Barbour and Prof Catharine Esterhuysen at SU.
What do you enjoy most about your role and working at SU?
I love being an academic because I get to do two things I really like – to do research, and to teach. I really enjoy both of these aspects of my role.
Finally, tell us something exciting or interesting about yourself that few people would expect?
Hmm. I play the flute and do ballroom and Latin dancing. I am an avid reader – mostly fantasy and science fiction, but when I really just want to switch off, I read Georgette Heyer’s regency period romances!