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High on carotenoids (6.11.05, 16:13)

In our ongoing series about foreign scientists at NTNU, Vassilia Partali gives her opinion on chemistry mysteries and moose on the loose in Trondheim.

Kavalla is a small town in the north of Greece, better known as Neapolis, the harbour of Phillipi. This was the site of the battle where the armies of Mark Antony and Octavius defeated the armies of Julius Caesar’s assassins in 42BC. Neapolis was also the first European city to accept Christianity in 49 AD. Those were the days. In more modern times Kavalla is the place where Associate Professor Vassilia Partali grew up.

INSPIRED BY HER UNCLE’S WINERY: When she was a young girl Vassilia visited a winery owned by her uncle in Crete. Fascinated by the winery’s small chemistry lab, she decided to study the sciences.
Quenching free radicals
- You are part of "The Anti-Oxidant Group" in the Department of Chemistry. What exactly do you do in your labs?

- We synthesize, combine and modify vitamins and antioxidants, like carotenoids and Vitamin E, and we investigate their physicochemical properties, their supramolecular structures and their biological activity. Another project we are working on is the synthesis of carotenoid compound, which could be used as a DNA delivery system. That means that it could transfer a gene into a cell. This project is in collaboration with the Cornell University Medical College in New York.

- Most people have probably heard about antioxidants, but what is their role?

- Free radicals occur when oxygen molecules are transformed into a highly reactive, unstable form of oxygen. This transformation occurs by sunlight, by the food we eat and during physical exercise. Free radicals can attack, damage and ultimately destroy cells and tissues inside the body also by damaging our DNA.
- Our bodies naturally protect themselves against free radicals with a class of substances called antioxidants. Antioxidants can detoxify the radicals produced during exercise. They may delay aging and stop potential mutations, and thereby prevent cancer. Vitamin A, C and E, carotenoid, selenium and coenzyme Q10 are well known for their antioxidant properties.



  • Vassilia Partali is a Greek and Swiss citizen, and was born in Athens in 1951.
  • Partali has studied chemistry at the bilingual (German, French) Université de Fribourg in Switzerland, where she received her diploma and PhD.
  • In 1984 she came for a post-doc year in the Chemistry Department of the former NTH. Partali continued to work in the same department as research assistant for 3 more years. From 1988-1991 she worked at AVH Rosenborg.
  • Since 1992, she has been employed as an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry, NTNU.

  • - What exactly are carotenoids? Do they have something to do with carrots?

    - Carotenoids are in carrots, but also in algae, fish, leaves on the trees, and other biological substances. Chlorophyll is a kind of camouflage for carotenoids in leaves, but at this time of the year we can see them as "autumn colours" because the chlorophyll has decomposed. There are 700 carotenoids in nature, and they have different structures and functions.

    - They are, with very few exceptions, lipid-soluble compounds. This is a limitation in terms of their pharmacological use and in their use as food colorants in soft drinks. In Norway, carotenoids are mainly used as colorants in salmon forage and in the soft drink Solo. In our lab we have managed to synthesize a water-soluble carotenoid which is a potent radical scavenging molecule.

    Vassilia tells us about a recent symposium in Edinburgh for carotenoid scientists, where she and her fellow researchers were tested for the content of carotenoid in their bodies. The vegetarian Vassilia and her chemist husband Hans-Richard Sliwka were second to none in the test. The reason might be that the couple often eats the object of their research – in particular tomato purée. The amount of lycopene in tomato purée makes it the king of carotenoids.

    Commercial potential
    - Antioxidants seem to play an important role in the ever-expanding health care business. Do you see a potential for commercializing some of the results of your research on antioxidants?

    AN OLYMPIC EFFORT: On top of Mount Olympus at 2917 meters.
    - Of course, there might be potential, but this is not my concern. I do basic research. If somebody finds my results interesting for a practical application, I will be happy, but I am not looking for it. My work is inspired by scientific curiosity, not by possible applications or money.

    - Have you had much interest from pharmaceutical companies in the research that is conducted in your labs?

    - Yes, in two cases the initial interest resulted in co-operation with a biotech company in Hawaii and with BASF in Germany. My PhD student Bente Foss was subsequently recruited for a position in Hawaii. We have a good working relationship with both companies since they cannot do the research they would like to do. They are under constant economic constraints; they have to get results. They cannot follow up on a reaction just for the glory of science. I can, and this is, fortunately, my job at a university.

    Low rank for Norwegian chemistry
    - What professional goals would you like to achieve? Can you achieve them at NTNU, or do you think you will have to go elsewhere to specialize further?

    - My goals are to succeed in the projects that I am working on, to be a good teacher for my students, and, finally, to be a good supervisor for my PhD and master’s students.

    - How is your experience as a researcher at NTNU perceived on an international level in your specific discipline?

    - Norwegian chemistry is not highly ranked when compared to other countries; Swiss, Swedish and Danish chemistry are cited much more often. Organic chemistry has no reputation in Norway since there are no big pharmaceutical companies in Norway.

    - Does NTNU have an environment that fosters internal and external co-operation? Are there, in your opinion, relevant networks and infrastructures that connect NTNU to research groups and institutions abroad?

    VASSILIA AND LOLO THE CAT: 14 years old Lolo resides in the Winter Palace overlooking Bakklandet, cohabiting with Vassilia and Hans-Richard.
    Photo: Private
    - Several times at the department I have encountered a very strange interpretation of what it means to co-operate. If I sum up my co-operation on the departmental level, I mainly work with my foreign colleagues, with some exceptions. Bringing together Physics and Chemistry in Realfagsbygget has promoted excellent co-operation with the physicists. We can now just go two floors up with our sensitive compounds without worrying about decomposition during transport. However, I don’t think that close proximity is an important factor in encouraging co-operation. On an international level we have, as mentioned before, co-operation with BASF and a biotech company in Hawaii, and we work, or have worked, with researchers in Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan and Rumania.

    - You have a broad range of research experience from institutions of higher education throughout Europe. What is your opinion of the Norwegian educational system?

    - I think that PhD courses and examinations are a waste of time and have a negative impact on the quality of the PhD programme here. There are, for example, no such obligatory courses and examinations in other countries, such as Switzerland and Germany, where a PhD candidate is free to fully concentrate on his or her project.

    A monocultural society with slow clerks
    - Outside NTNU, I assume you have experienced some differences between Norwegian culture and that of Southern Europe?

    - I see Norway as a monocultural society as compared to Switzerland, where I have studied. In Norway there is a great deal of hesitancy towards the unknown and a strong demand for uniformity.

    - Have you run into any language barriers at work or in the course of everyday life?

    I SAY TOMATO, YOU SAY LYCOPENE: Vassilia likes to eat some of the objects of her research – tomato purée in particular. The amount of lycopene in tomato purée makes it the king of carotenoids.
    - Norwegian is the forth language I have learned, and I give my lectures in Norwegian. My colleagues and students don’t have any problem understanding me. In contrast, I sometimes have problems understanding Norwegians. Generally, people don’t make an effort to speak "normalized" Norwegian. And I am still not familiar with Norwegian names. When reading a name I often don’t know whether it is a woman’s or a man’s name. This creates funny situations: I expect a lady, and a man appears.

    - After 21 years in this town, are there any Trondheim phenomena that still surprise you in any way? And do you miss something in particular here?

    - Moose in town still surprise me. So do the queues in stores, post and train stations, which are allowed to get long because the clerks work too slowly. I miss cultural diversity in Trondheim.

    Recharging the batteries
    - What does your ordinary workday look like?

    - I am in my office every day by 8.30 at the latest, even on Monday and Friday mornings after swimming in Pirbadet. I rarely go home before 18.00, except Wednesdays, when I go for my weekly jog in Bymarka. On an ordinary workday I give lectures and I pass through the lab to discuss research problems with my PhD and master’s students. When time allows it, I work in the lab myself. Quite often I have to attend meetings – very popular in Norway – and I have to deal with various administrative tasks.

    - What do you like to do in your spare time?

    - One of the main reasons for coming to Norway was the outdoors. In Switzerland I did a lot of skiing and mountain climbing, and I continued with these activities when I moved to Trondheim. I am a member of the Trondheim Turistforening Fjellsportgruppa (TTF) and I was elected to the board of TTF. I still coordinate some courses from time to time.

    - Are you comfortable with the climate here?

    - I like the winter when there is snow. I also like the light. The problem is the summer – or the period of the year that is supposed to be the summer.

    By Kenneth Stoltz