Spotlight on Young Researchers: Charles de Bourcy

 

Charles de Bourcy decided to become a researcher on human health when he realised the human body is not invincible. After completing his undergraduate studies at University of Oxford, the Luxembourg national secured one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world and embarked on a PhD at Stanford University. Now in the final year of this PhD in Applied Physics, Charles is taking his first steps towards his goal of building technologies to help ease the burden of global disease.

Charles de Bourcy’s job in his PhD has been to try to find aspects of the human immune system that can be engineered to prevent or treat life-threatening diseases.

“My PhD projects focus on how immune cells can go wrong in old age, how they can be affected by immunotherapy for systemic sclerosis, and how we might prevent cancer-fighting cells from falling into a dysfunctional ‘exhausted’ state”, Charles explains.

Charles adds that this involves using the latest advances in genomics technology, combined with high-performance computing and quantitative analytics.

“Early on, a lot of time might be spent preparing blood samples for DNA sequencing, which means pipetting reagents. Later on, I spend most of my time coding to carry out computational analysis. In the afternoons, I often meet with the collaborators to discuss progress or learn about advances from other research groups. In the final phase of a project, I spend my days writing and preparing figures for publication.”

“I was drawn to the profound impact a researcher can have”

Charles explains his passion for research was triggered by the realisation that the human body is not invincible – that there are infectious diseases, cancers, autoimmune diseases and more that still have extremely limited treatment options.

“This feeling of helplessness pushed me to work on problems in human health. I was drawn to the profound impact the work of a researcher can have: a single discovery can change the paradigm for how an entire class of diseases are handled.

“For example, synthetic biology has enabled engineered immune cells against tumors, which have the potential to improve outcomes for a whole range of different cancers.

“Part of the fun is that such breakthroughs often happen in indirect ways — there’s this saying that the light bulb wasn’t invented by someone trying to make a better candle.”

“If more of the technological breakthroughs of the last 50 years can find their way into medicine, a lot more diseases are bound to become tractable”

In terms of what Charles wants to achieve as a scientist, he explains that he wants to help reduce the global disease burden, by building technologies that enable diseases to be treated – or prevented – in the best possible way:

“My first step in this endeavor has been to develop tools that allow previously impenetrable aspects of immunology to be measured quantitatively.

“If more of the technological breakthroughs of the last 50 years can find their way into medicine, a lot more diseases are bound to become tractable – advances in genomics, image processing and machine learning could be used to great effect in medicine, particularly if leveraged at a large scale.

“For example, surveys of immune repertoires and viral evolution across the globe could lead to more efficacious vaccine development and allow epidemics to be managed better, before they develop into catastrophic pandemics.”

Charles left Luxembourg for his undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford in the UK, before moving to Stanford University in California for his PhD. Even though Charles has been away for some years, he has been keeping an eye on the research landscape in Luxembourg for his future scientific plans:

“I have been following the development of Luxembourg’s research infrastructure with excitement. The country is pouring a lot of resources into expanding its research activity, making it a very attractive place to launch ambitious projects.”

Charles is now finishing up his PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford University. Charles’ PhD was funded by the International Fulbright Science & Technology Award and by the Melvin and Joan Lane Stanford Graduate Fellowship.

Meeting Nobel Prize winners

Charles was one of 400 early-career scientists selected to attend 2015 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, with his attendance sponsored by the FNR – read an interview with Charles about the experience.

Charles at the 2015 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, here with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of HIV.
Charles de Bourcy

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

Spotlight on Young Researchers is an FNR initiative to highlight early career researchers across the world who have a connection to Luxembourg. This article is the 17th in a series of around 25 articles, which will be published on a weekly basis. You can see more articles below as and when they are published.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Eva Lagunas

Eva Lagunas has always been curious about technology, even building her own makeshift smartphone when she was a child. A couple of degrees later, the Spanish national set her sights on coming to Luxembourg, family in tow, to take up a Postdoc position at the University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT). Now, she feels lucky to spend her time researching satellite communications in the 5G era.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Pier Mario Lupinu

When one thinks of banks and financial institutions, the word ‘research’ may not come to mind. However, research has much to offer these institutions, for example new tools to help with delivering critical services. As part of his PhD at the University of Luxembourg, Italian national Pier Mario Lupinu researches issues related to post-resolution in banking and finance.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Glioblastoma and the challenge of getting cancer drugs to reach the brain

Glioblastoma is the most aggressive form of brain tumours in adults. The incidence is about 4 per 100.000 people and the average survival after diagnosis is about 14 months with current treatments. The tumour’s location represents a major challenge – few drugs make it past the blood brain barrier. Researchers are working on designing a novel kind of drug that could help do just that.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Assessing the sustainability of Luxembourgish agriculture

Deforestation and soil degradation is one of many consequences of climate change. Food production systems alone are responsible for around a quarter of annual emissions. Researchers in Luxembourg are working with local actors to create models to help assess the sustainability of Luxembourgish farms.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Max Hilaire Wolter

During his Bachelor studies in physics and photovoltaics at the University of Luxembourg, Max Hilaire Wolter was exposed to live-action research for the first time. The experience left such a positive impression that Max proactively sought out to return to the same lab for a PhD after completing his Master’s studies abroad. We spoke to the Luxembourg national about why research is fun, solar cells and the importance of science outreach.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Jose-Luis Sanchez-Lopez

Jose-Luis Sanchez-Lopez works with multirotor aerial robots – drones. Despite being early in his research career, the Spanish national’s research is already taking off, having secured him several awards at international competitions. After completing his PhD in 2017, Jose-Luis set his sights on Luxembourg, where he works as a Postdoc at the SnT at the University of Luxembourg, with the goal of giving drones enough AI that they can safely operate autonomously in a range of environments.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Cyrille Thinnes

In 2015, Cyrille Thinnes was featured in our campaign ‘Spotlight on Young Researchers’, which highlighted early-career researchers with a connection to Luxembourg. At the time, Cyrille was at the University of Oxford doing a DPhil (PhD) in chemical biology. One year on, we caught up with Cyrille!

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Pit Ullmann

Pit Ullmann’s interest in natural sciences was piqued in high school. The Luxembourg national went on to study molecular biology at the University of Innsbruck and then found himself desiring a job that would be both interdisciplinary and diversified – fast forward and Pit is now completing his AFR PhD at the University of Luxembourg, where his research group studies why and how colon cancer develops and spreads.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa

Growing up in Botswana and Zimbabwe, Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa did not see science as a career option. Fast forward a few years: Nathasia is studying Parkinson’s disease as part of her PhD at the LCSB at the University of Luxembourg, and has co-founded a STEM initiative that was featured in Forbes.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Ramona Pelich

Ramona Pelich uses data from satellites in space to improve maritime surveillance and flood hazard monitoring. Splitting her time between the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) and the company LuxSpace as part of her AFR-PPP Postdoc, the Romanian national’s work has already found direct application when flood maps she co-developed were used in the aftermath of destructive 2017 hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Paul Hauseux

Paul Hauseux was always interested in science, but only recently settled on the researcher path. Before that, his career ambitions stretched from working in sports or music to teaching science. Some years and a PhD later, the French national has come to Luxembourg for his computational engineering Postdoc in the team of ERC grantee Stéphane Bordas at the University of Luxembourg.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Katharina Baum

When Katharina Baum was a teenager, her mother took her to a presentation about the Human Genome Project. Fascinated, she stood up and asked what she would have to do to be able to study genes. Some years and a degree in mathematics later, the German national and mother of two children now splits her time between Luxembourg and Berlin as part of her two postdocs. In her work at the Luxembourg Institute of Health, Katharina combines computer science, maths and biology to identify faulty regulatory mechanisms in cancerous cells.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Isabel Z. Martínez

Isabel Z. Martínez has been interested in how policies are put in place and how they affect people’s lives for as long as she can remember. After completing her Masters in Economics, she realised that academia was the ideal way to quench her thirst for analysing large data sets and finding answers to questions addressing people’s well-being and policy decisions. The Swiss-Spanish national has been studying income and wealth inequality in Switzerland for years and has now come to Luxembourg as a Postdoc at LISER to expand her research to the Grand Duchy. We spoke to Isabel about life as a research economist, and how it has already enabled her to travel across the globe, as well as work with some of the foremost researchers in her field.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Martin Řehoř

In industry, computer simulations and optimizations are established approaches to inform and improve engineering designs. As part of his Industrial Fellowship, Postdoc Martin Řehoř works on numerical solvers that could help solve design problems that involve the processing of fluids.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Nature does it best

What is the connection between the gut of a termite and renewable energy? What binds them is anaerobic digestion, the process by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material without oxygen. We speak to four young researchers in the Biosystems and Bioprocessing Engineering group at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) about how understanding the termite gut could help unlock the full potential of anaerobic digestion, and the associated benefits for green and cleantech.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Konstantinos Papadopoulos

During his computer science studies, Konstantinos Papadopoulos realised how many unexplored areas there are in the field and his desire for becoming a researcher was born. Now in the 2nd year of his PhD at the SnT at the University of Luxembourg, the Greek national works on developing innovative new approaches to security surveillance.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Are you what you eat?

Cardiometabolic complications threaten health and reduce life expectancy. In Luxembourg, 1 in 3 people have metabolic syndrome, as a risk factor for cardiometabolic complications such as obesity, high blood sugar and cholesterol, as well as hypertension. Science has shown a link between what we eat and our health – nutritionists are now investigating how dietary strategies could prevent these health complications.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Understanding drug resistance in skin cancer

Melanoma is a rare type of skin cancer, but it is the deadliest type – and incidence is on the rise. Metastatic melanoma has seen a rapid emergence in drug resistance: After a few months, treatment stops working and tumours begin to grow again. Molecular biologists are working to understand why this happens.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: The human gut microbiome and the clues it holds

Research is steadily painting a picture revealing the significance the human gut microbiome plays in health and disease. From gastrointestinal tract disorders to the beginnings and treatment of Parkinson’s disease and beyond, the gut microbiome is a treasure trove of clues for researchers. We speak to three women in science – a biomedical scientist, a microbiologist and a bioscience engineer – about organs-on-chips and restoring an imbalanced microbiome.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Nanotechnology – a future big player in health

Divya Balakrishnan, Dipti Rani and Serena Rollo are women in science working in a field that could have a major impact on how health is managed: In the group of FNR ATTRACT Fellow César Pascual García at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), the team works on developing sensors for biochemical applications focusing on medicine.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Thomas Elliot

When Thomas Elliot (Tom) cycled from Indonesia to London, he witnessed many people living in hardship. Motivated to research how consumption affects social and environmental justice in a bid to help reduce the hardship witnessed, the New Zealand national applied for an open PhD position at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), where he now works on a project that fuses urban metabolism and ecosystem services.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Pit Losch

Passion and competitiveness is at the heart of being a researcher for Pit Losch, who describes life in research as a rollercoaster ride. The Luxembourg national, who completed his AFR PhD at the University of Strasbourg, is currently a Postdoc at Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, where he investigates and shapes materials for the future. We spoke to Pit about his life as a scientist.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Membranes for clean water

As the global population sharply increases, so does the demand for clean water. At the same time, freshwater is gradually being depleted. Combine these two factors, and we have the potential for widespread water shortages – it is estimated that half of European basins will be experiencing water stress by 2030, and that 6 billion people will suffer from clean water scarcity by 2050. Researchers are working on cost-effective practices to address this impending crisis.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Ramping up carbohydrates production

Carbs are all around us: a major constituent in food, they also play a role in many biological processes such as intercellular communication; they are in demand in the pharmaceutical industry, where they are currently used as anticoagulants and in skincare. With the goal of no longer having to rely solely on nature’s production of carbs, scientists have been working on ways to ramp up production. A case for chemistry!

Spotlight on Young Researchers: A fully automatic flood mapping algorithm

Flooding presents a major hazard in both rural and urban areas. Luxembourg was also affected by the significant floods that devastated parts of Germany in July 2021. With the goal of predicting areas that will flood, scientists are working on various aspects of flood-mapping using satellite data.

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