Engineering Nebraska, Summer07
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Viljoen Earns Prestigious Cather Professorship

Hendrik Viljoen

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln has named Hendrik Viljoen the Willa Cather Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Viljoen is the first College of Engineering faculty member to earn a Willa Cather or Charles Bessey professorship. The awards were established in the 2001-02 academic year to recognize faculty who have records of distinguished scholarship and creative activity.

He was nominated by William Velander, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“Professor Viljoen’s achievements and aspirations capture the universally accepted and highest levels of academic excellence. In that vein, he provides invaluable leadership by example for UNL,” Velander said.

Viljoen was at a conference in South Africa when the university sent letters of congratulations to this year’s recipients.

“It is clear to say I was elated when I got the news,” he said.

Cather professors are appointed for five-year renewable terms and receive a $2,500 annual stipend.

Viljoen said his next challenge is to develop the technology for point-of-care diagnostics to perform strain differentiation. He is particularly interested in understanding the frequencies and loci of errors in proteins, ribosome kinetics and the role of certain antibiotics.

“I would like to know what the main sources of errors are, and to what extent we can control it,” Viljoen said.

The answer would help scientists understand the nature of drug resistance in bacteria. Viljoen is partnering with University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers Catherine Gebhart, technical director of the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, and Dr. Alison Freifeld, associate professor of internal medicine, to study the spread of a dangerous strain of tuberculosis in South Africa. Extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDRTB) does not respond to traditional antibiotic treatments. The mortality rate of those infected with XDRTB is extremely high, according to the Center for Disease Control.

What’s interesting, Viljoen said, is that the spread of tuberculosis is closely tied to the HIV virus because people with suppressed immune systems are more likely to contract tuberculosis. In South Africa, people who get the highly contagious XDRTB strain are quarantined immediately, he said.

“It’s like going back to the old days when TB patients were placed in sanatoria,” Viljoen said.

He and the UNMC researchers are developing models to distinguish the strains of tuberculosis, which would help doctors prescribe the best antibiotic for a particular case. Viljoen said the project involves engineers, microbiologists and clinicians and is “a beautiful example of an interdisciplinary project.”

Viljoen has been a professor at UNL since 1993. He received his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Viljoen was part of the team that received the College of Engineering’s Multidisciplinary Research Award in 2005. He holds two patents, has published more than 80 articles and belongs to numerous professional societies including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Materials Research Society and the South African Institute of Chemical Engineers.

—Ashley Washburn