Putting Theory Into Practice
Sitting Down With… Attila Felinger, Professor of Analytical Chemistry, University of Pécs, Hungary.
Attila Felinger | | Interview
Did you always know you would be a chemist?
My passion for chemistry started very early – I remember reading chemistry books in elementary school. I chose a high school that specialized in chemistry and went on to study chemical engineering at University of Veszprém, Hungary, where I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s theses in analytical chemistry.
My research has always been driven by curiosity. It’s human nature to want to understand how something works – just as a keen driver wants to understand their car, a chromatographer wants to understand their column. In my analytical chemistry research I incorporate elements of chemical engineering and physical chemistry, to understand the theory behind the instruments.
How has the field evolved?
Ten or fifteen years ago, it was widely held that we had reached the limits of liquid chromatography. Then UHPLC came along and suddenly there was a wealth of new opportunities and problems for us to get to grips with. The advent of core-shell particles brought another raft of novel possibilities, and now we wait with interest to see what changes 3D printing technology might bring in the next few years.
What is the current focus of your lab?
We explore the fundamental processes of separation science, with the ultimate goal of developing better tools. For example, we investigate how the chromatographic column or bed contributes to loss of efficiency during reverse-phase chromatography and UHPLC. We are also trying to understand the retention mechanisms involved in zwitterionic chiral stationary phases, and supercritical fluid chromatography – all areas where the underlying processes are not well understood.
HPLC is a mature technology, applied in laboratories everywhere. However, the approach to fine-tuning a method is often what you might call “inject and watch” – a time-consuming process of adjusting different parameters until you get the result you want. Once you understand the fundamental physical and chemical processes taking place inside the column, you are equipped to optimize your separations quickly and efficiently.
What have been the key turning points in your career?
In 1989, when I was still a young postdoc, I had the opportunity to go to Italy to work with Francesco Dondi at the University of Ferrara, which began a longstanding collaboration. Together, we helped demonstrate the many benefits of molecular-level (stochastic) modelling of chromatography. Unfortunately, this approach is still not fully appreciated or frequently used, but I hope in the future it will attract broader interest and acceptance.
A year later, I joined Georges Guiochon’s group at the University of Tennessee, where I spent three years that shaped my whole career. I learned so much from him about how to approach chromatography – and life. He would choose an area of separation science that was poorly understood and spare no efforts to systematically reveal its secrets – an approach I have tried to emulate. Georges and I became great friends and continued to collaborate until his death in 2014.
What’s next for your group?
We will continue our work in chiral separations and supercritical fluid chromatography, separately and in combination. As always, we want to answer fundamental questions in chromatographic separations – what controls and limits the separation, and how can we optimize it?
And for the wider field?
Chromatography is here to stay. I’ve learnt in the course of my career that chromatography has a wonderful ability to renew itself. It’s impossible to say how chromatography will look in 10 or 20 years, but I’m confident it will remain one of the strongest applications in analytical chemistry.
I’m a member of the scientific committee for the HPLC symposium series, which helps me to stay current with trends in the field and the work of young scientists. There was a fascinating lecture at HPLC 2017 in Prague by Zoltán Takáts (Imperial College London) about the iKnife, which is bringing analytical science to the surgical theatre. I think in the future we can expect to see analytical chemistry becoming a part of everyday life.
I am also President of the Hungarian Society for Separation Sciences, which organizes an event every year – alternating international and domestic symposia. Like HPLC, we make it our mission to bring together young and established scientists in an open, collaborative atmosphere.
As a scientist, you cannot concentrate solely on your own career, or even your own field. If you have an opportunity to help the wider community, or support the next generation of scientists, you must take it.
What is the biggest challenge facing the field?
I find it worrying that analytical science is often seen as being at a lower level than organic, physical, or theoretical chemistry. Some don’t even consider analytical chemistry a discipline in its own right, but rather as “applied physical chemistry”. I strongly disagree. Recruiters in pharma, healthcare and environment are heavily focused on hiring specialists in instrumental analysis or analytical chemistry, and often struggle to fill these vacancies. To make sure we can meet the needs of society, it’s important that analytical chemistry is recognised as an independent discipline with a crucial role.