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Molecules and Music

John Woodland (2005K) writes about the interconnectedness of all things
(Left to right) Graham Robertson, Lizelle Swanepoel, Bulelani Sidawu, Anne Stevens, John Woodland
(Left to right) Graham Robertson, Lizelle Swanepoel, Bulelani Sidawu, Anne Stevens, John Woodland

The interconnectedness of all things was keenly felt in mid-October when an unusual convergence of two events on the same day spanned two decades and two very different disciplines…

The first was a lunchtime address to the College’s Democritus Society on my work as a drug discovery scientist at UCT. Democritus was an Ancient Greek philosopher who proposed that matter is composed of indivisible particles – and, as a chemist, I have spent the past decade assembling molecules that could serve as potential new medicines out of these Lego brick-like atoms. I used to lead the Democritus Society together with Vincent Hare (2005G), today a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at UCT, under the encouraging guidance of our science teacher, Jan Beyers – and so it was surreal to be back in the Science Block for the first time in many years, having been invited by the current teacher-in-charge, the inspirational Lizelle Swanepoel, and warmly welcomed by Grant Weich (Grade 10 Birt).

(Left to right) John Woodland (2005K), Lizelle Swanepoel, Grant Weich (Grade 10 B)

The event turned out to be a happy reunion as we were joined by another science teacher, Graham Robertson, and Dr Anne Stevens, current HOD, who tutored me in A Level Chemistry while I was Claude Brown Organ Scholar in 2006 – and thus played a key role in setting me on my current academic path. Incidentally, her doctoral supervisor at UCT was Professor Kelly Chibale with whom I now work closely and who directs the interdisciplinary Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre where I am based.

On my way back down the Avenue, I could not help stopping briefly at the John Peake Music School to greet the many influential teachers there who nurtured my passion for music – and those happy interactions set the scene for the second event of the day, when I found myself listening to Zoë Beyers and the Dante Quartet in the expansive acoustic of the Olympia Bakery in Kalk Bay.

Zoë is the daughter of Jan Beyers – and, after growing up in South Africa, Zoë (now based in the UK) has established a formidable international reputation as a soloist, chamber, and orchestral musician. She is the first violinist in the renowned Dante Quartet, known for its imaginative programming and impassioned performances, where she plays alongside another OD, Ian Watson (2001O). Together, they performed an absorbing and varied programme comprising music by Haydn, Puccini, Caroline Shaw, and Frank Bridge.

It was poignant to meet and speak to Zoë afterwards, and to mention my visit to the Democritus Society earlier that day. Sadly, Jan has since passed away but I daresay that he would have been pleased, looking down on his daughter and a former pupil and the way that they had been brought together, two decades later, in a cosmic synthesis of molecules and music.

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