Stefaan C. De Smedt studied pharmacy at Ghent University (Belgium) and obtained his MS degree in pharmaceutical sciences in 1990. He graduated from Ghent University in 1995. In 1995 he joined the pharmaceutical development group of Janssen Research Foundation. Since 1997 he has been a post-doctoral fellow of the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research at the Departments of Pharmacy of respectively Ghent University and the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands). In October 1999 he became Professor in Physical Pharmacy and Biopharmacy at Ghent University where he initiated his research on advanced delivery of biologics/nanomedicines and founded the Ghent Research Group on Nanomedicines. Stefaan De Smedt’s research is at the interface between drug delivery, biophysics, material sciences and physical chemistry.
Currently he is Guest Professor at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Distinguished Visiting Scientist of the Chinese Academy of Sciences at the University of Science and Technology of China and Specially Appointed Professor of Nanjing Foresty University. He served as dean of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Ghent University from 2010 till 2014. Since 2014 he is a member of the Board of Directors of Ghent University and board member of CRIG (cancer research institute Ghent). Since 2004, Prof. De Smedt serves as the European Associate Editor of the Journal of Controlled Release (JCR); In 2015 he became Editor of JCR (for the region Europe- the Middle East & Africa). He is as member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Medicine (elected 2015) and the European Academy of Sciences (section medicine & life sciences; elected 2018). In 2018 he became awarded highly Cited Researcher (interdisciplinary sciences) by Web of Science (Thomson Reuters).
Questions for Luminaries
1. What sparked your interest in science in general and drug delivery in particular?
As a teenager I became highly motivated to understand who I am and what surrounds me. The chemistry behind life and how chemical compounds can interfere with biological processes in particular fascinated me. I believe this is a major reason why I decided to study pharmaceutical sciences. My wish to help ill people, in one way or another, was another reason why I wanted to become a pharmacist. I actually intended to work as a pharmacist in Kikwit (Congo) in Kwilu Province right after finishing my master studies. But the catholic order who exploited this dispensary forced me to marry to my girlfriend before leaving for Africa….which I did not consider as an appropriate motivation. Being inspired by my professors in physical pharmacy and pharmaceutical technology I became fascinated in drug delivery. My special interest in advanced drug delivery was born after reading a little book on transdermal delivery systems. I found it so fascinating that physical laws and principles allow one to control drug release from such devices. I still have this little book in my library at home.
2. Share a turning point or defining moment you experienced in your work as a scientist.
After finishing my doctoral thesis in 1995 I left Ghent University and joined Janssen Pharmaceutica in Beerse, Belgium. I got a very challenging job as a project manager in pharmaceutical developments. It opened my mind and brought me a stronger view on both drug development and industry. However, I remember very sharply how strongly I missed the open space and unlimited liberty you can enjoy as an academic scientist. I was waiting for my wife on a summer evening in front of Gent railway station when I realized how important it is for me to work on challenging questions which I define myself … it was a major reason why I left Janssen after two years to become an academic scientist. Another critical moment was the evening of my doctoral defence when the dean of our faculty openly told to the public that I had the capacity to become a successful academic scientist and that he regretted that I had left the university. Honestly I hadn’t really realized my capacities myself… it showed me how important it is to confirm people and to express you believe in them…
3. Tell us about the exciting ways in which your particular field is progressing.
In our group in Gent we mainly focus on intracellular delivery of biological drugs for various targets like lungs, cornea and retina, dendritic cells,... Clearly, while we have biological drugs available since decades, there is no doubt that these types of drugs will change the world of pharmacy and the way we treat known and future diseases in our century. To me, this whole delivery process remains extremely challenging as a fundamental understanding of many highly complex sub steps is needed to succeed. Besides that I fully enjoy to try to identify and explore ‘new concepts’ which might become of interest in drug delivery or life sciences.
4. What is the best piece of professional advice you have received and from whom?
No doubts that I got the best professional advice from my PhD promotor professor Jo Demeester. The way he behaved and approached people has determined the way I work. Also his ‘style of thinking’ i.e. the ambition to clearly and deeply understand, to accept only the truth and ignore when information is wrong has influenced me a lot not only in my scientific work but also in my role as director of the lab, in my previous role as dean of faculty and in my current positions as member of the board of the university and editor of the JCR. I have been very lucky I have met such people.
5. Would you change anything about your career path if you could start over?
A difficult question. I feel happy when I look back and do not have any regrets, but sometimes I wonder what I would have realized in case I would have stayed in industry. Possibly I could have become a director of pharmaceutical company having realized a bigger impact on society and health. Though I doubt this. I am convinced that one of the strongest way one can contribute to, and influence, society is through education of younger generations. To some of you this might sound highly idealistic, though to me inspiring young people (and allowing them to make up their minds) belongs to the essence of my life.
6. What advice would you give to someone who is starting their scientific career?
Try to identify the field/questions in which you are deeply interested. Look for a lab with futuristic dreams and high ambitions in which people highly respect, scientifically motivate and take care of each other. Challenge the questions asked by your promotors. Go for fundamental science: to me it is the best guarantee to create impact on the longer term. Speak with many, many people: I have learnt a lot more from speaking to people than from reading papers (although the latter is also of utmost importance…). Work hard but take rest if you feel tired… Listen to people to become inspired. As we are pharmaceutical scientists, visit hospitals and speak to patients, medical doctors and nurses: they will all show and explain you the problems that have to be solved, the challenges, the reason why it makes so much sense to be a pharmaceutical scientist…
7. What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab? What are your hobbies/interests?
Of course I enjoy spending time with my family and friends; I have the best memories to the unique places in the world we travelled to with our daughters. I also have a big garden with trees, flowers, vegetables, birds, a little pool occupied by frogs, a cat and chickens …which I (mostly) enjoy. Besides I play a little piano, nearly every evening and I a member of a Baroque choir which makes I have to study scores of Byrd, Bach, Purcell, Händel, … it brings me comfort and joy. Every day I cycle for about one hour (from home to the lab, and back) which keeps me away from blood pressure medication and statines … and close the day with ‘Een Pater van Zes Graden’ (don’t Google as you will not find it).
8. Why would you advise to become a member of our Local Chapter and CRS and how one can benefit from it?
It is important to ‘think globally’. Though being connected, knowing each other in person, is crucial for scientists. In the end most of us act ‘locally’. When you are interested in drug delivery and live in BENELUX or France it is the obvious choice to become a member of and contribute (the way you prefer) to the CRS local chapter.