Dimitri De Waele: ‘Ambition and selfcare don’t always match’

5 min
Text Katrien Verreyken 
Image Sarah Van Looy


  • Dimitri De Waele started studying Chemistry in 2006 and graduated summa cum laude in 2023. 

  • He survived a rare type of aggressive bone cancer and is currently training to be a safety advisor and instructor on the transport of dangerous goods. 

  • He was awarded the Oxford University Press Achievement in Chemistry Prize in 2013 and the Chemistry Department Prize in 2023. 

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Instead of heading straight for a destination, it meanders and takes side roads and detours, occasionally pulling over for a longer stop. Nobody knows this better than Dimitri De Waele. He started his Chemistry programme in 2006 and completed it in September 2023 – 16 years later – with the highest average final mark ever. What took him so long? Dealing with an aggressive type of bone cancer that almost got the better of him on several occasions, for one thing. But he didn’t give up. 



Master after sixteen years 

In 2006, Dimitri De Waele started his bachelor programme in Chemistry in high spirits, but half a year later disaster struck when he was diagnosed with a rare type of aggressive bone cancer. After his exams in January, he had no choice but to quit his studies. As it turned out, he would unfortunately not be able to quickly pick them up again due to the cancer having spread and the necessity to undergo five major lung surgeries and chemo- and radiotherapy. After having been forced to put his studies on hold for six years, De Waele decided to enrol again. His perseverance earned him a bachelor degree with the highest distinction and, in September, a master degree, also completed summa cum laude. ‘An exceptional final average of 92%, which I’ve never seen in my career,’ said Professor Annemie Bogaerts.  


How does that feel? Is he proud? Happy? Or mostly sorry that his studies are over now? ‘A combination of everything,’ he says. ‘I’m obviously very happy that I made it, but it did take a very long time… I took part in a whopping 24 exam periods. I’m sorry to say that after my graduation, feelings of pride were overshadowed by tiredness. All due to having had to make so many sacrifices to get this diploma.’ 

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Every day I feel the effects of my treatments. That’s the price I’m paying for the privilege of being alive.

Dimitri De Waele

Continuous uncertainty 

And the sacrifices continue. Even though De Waele has almost been declared cancer-free, he continues to live with uncertainty. His lung capacity is limited, he suffers from chronic kidney insufficiency (as well as other complaints), his left knee and part of his shin are gone, and due to the neurological damage caused by the chemo he is sometimes uncapable of concentrating for any length of time. ‘Cancer is a life sentence,’ De Waele remarks. ‘Every day I feel the effects of my treatments. That’s the price I pay for the privilege of being alive. During my studies I took the Medicinal Chemistry course and that’s where I found out that my heart and kidney troubles are directly related to the cardio- and nephrotoxic substances in my chemotherapy. And I’m sad to report that for my type of cancer, no new, less invasive therapies have been developed yet.’  


There is also always the chance of the cancer returning: ‘I feel stress in the run-up to the annual check and struggle with making long-term plans. Everyone around me has continued with their life over the past sixteen years, while I feel like I’ve been treading in place the whole time.’ 

Phenomenal guidance 

In spite of the lengthy process, De Waele has warm feelings about his student days: The guidance I received at the Faculty of Science was phenomenal. People were so generous and friendly in helping me. I was able to use all of the ‘special arrangements’ and am very grateful for this. The staff members really tried to put themselves in my shoes and facilitated me wherever possible. I also spent five years as a student representative and truly felt like people were listening to me. 


Would De Waele like to be a role model for other students in difficult situations? My advice would be to persevere and carry on, but also to be honest to yourself about your limitations and to be willing to accept help, because you’re not alone. You are entitled to your dreams; let no one ever take those away.’ 

Industrial internship 

Are De Waele's student days definitely behind him, or is he considering a PhD given his high marks? ‘I’ve given it serious thought, but after twelve years of studying and constantly taking exams, it was time for a new challenge. Having said that, I really enjoyed doing the research for my master thesis, which resulted in a great academic paper. I feel I have some years to catch up and by skipping my PhD, I gain five years of relevant working experience. That’s how I look at it.’ 


De Waele changed direction during his industrial internship in his master year: ‘Such an industrial internship wasn’t part of the Chemistry programme yet when I started studying, but it really adds a lot of value. I mapped out carbon emissions for a transport company. I thought that internship was the ideal way of getting acquainted with industry.’ 

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I want to make sure people are exposed to carcinogenic and other harmful substances as little as possible.

Dimitri De Waele

Caring for people 

Thanks to the good impression he made during his internship, De Waele already had a job lined up well before he graduated. He started working as a safety advisor and instructor on the transport of dangerous goods at the company VVV-DGT in August. Which kind of makes me a perpetual student, because I’m currently studying hard for the safety advisor exams,’ De Waele says with a laugh.  


Is this the job he’d been eying all along? ‘I’ve always been interested in safety and think the world of transport and logistics is fascinating. It’s also my way of giving back: I want to make sure people are exposed to carcinogenic and other harmful substances as little as possible. The job is very interesting, but also challenging. Because of my physical disability, I have to be careful with my energy. Showing ambition and taking care of oneself are sometimes diametrically opposed. But I love doing it, I’m receiving great support from my colleagues and I’m curious to see what else life has in store for me.’ 

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