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: Taking language barriers out of the equation

Luxembourg nationals Max Greisen and Véronique Cornu have many things in common: They are both educated in the field of psychology, they are both PhD researchers at the University of Luxembourg – and they both work with language-free approaches to early mathematical development of multilingual children. Max develops and implements animations that help assess early numerical competencies, while Véronique develops training methods to help overcome language barriers in early math education.

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: Anjali Sharma

In school, we are taught three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. The focus of University of Luxembourg PhD candidate Anjali Sharma’s research lies between solid and liquid: liquid crystal. She studies them in unusual shapes that are no larger than the width of a human hair, yet they are considered as large by the scientists of the field. As part of her research, the Indian national got an opportunity for a rare experiment: Taking her research into a zero gravity environment.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Gilles Tossing

Gilles Tossing’s fascination for the human brain – and why it sometimes fails – led him to the path of research. Now in the second year of his AFR PhD at Université de Montréal in Canada, the Luxembourg national investigates neurodegenerative diseases, with the aim of improving treatments for those affected.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Anna Schleimer

In high school, Anna Schleimer thought everything there was to know in science was already known. When she discovered how many unanswered questions there still are, curiosity drove her to become a researcher. The Luxembourg national is now in the 1st year of her AFR PhD, in what is not your most common topic: As a marine biologist, Anna studies fin whales as part of her joint PhD at University of Groningen and University of St Andrews.

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: Noémie Catherine Engel

Noémie Catherine Engel has just begun her researcher journey – and she has found her niche already: As part of her AFR PhD at the University of Bath, the Luxembourg national investigates the evolution of sex role traits in a small shorebird species in Cape Verde.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Chetan Arora

Chetan Arora always knew he wanted to do a PhD, but did not see himself pursuing research beyond that. A few years later, the Indian national has completed his PhD in Requirements Engineering at the SnT at the University of Luxembourg, under the supervision of FNR PEARL Chair Lionel Briand – but this is only the beginning. During his PhD, Chetan’s passion for the challenging nature of research was lit, when he helped create a novel tool suite, which has the potential to have a big impact on software engineering.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Léon-Charles Tranchevent

Léon-Charles Tranchevent says he has found the perfect job in being a researcher. Cherishing the freedom and unexpectedness of his line of work, the computational biologist also feels it’s his duty to contribute to the training of the next generation of researchers. The French national has recently begun his AFR Bilateral Postdoc at the Luxembourg Institute of Health in collaboration with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Miguel Angel Olivares Mendez

Miguel Angel Olivares Mendez works on mobile robots – more specifically: he develops algorithms that enable drones to fly around and perform various tasks autonomously, such as inspecting big structures. The Spanish national came to Luxembourg in 2013 after he came across a Postdoc position that fit like a glove.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Silvia Girardi

Silvia Girardi is a sociologist with an interest in studying policies that aim to contrast poverty. As part of her joint PhD at Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) and KU Leuven, the Italian national looks at the social policies that support low-income households in Luxembourg, taking the perspectives of the citizens on the receiving end, and the social workers involved in implementation.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Thomas Schaubroeck

Thomas Schaubroeck specialises in sustainability assessment of products. We speak to the Belgian national about the research he is undertaking in the framework of an Industrial Fellowship between the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) and company Tarkett; how working with industry differs from academia; and how he hopes his research can help industry steer toward a more sustainable future.

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: Lisa Hefele

When Lisa Hefele was a child, she wanted to study archaeology because she thought her days would look like an Indiana Jones movie. The realisation that this would not be the case, combined with an inquisitive nature and growing passion for biology, led Lisa to pursue the path of a biology and public health researcher. Now in the first year of her PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), Lisa is working on an international project that has taken her all the way to Laos for her field work on low immunologic responses to vaccines.

Spotlight On Young Researchers: Henderika de Vries

Are creative people better at regulating emotions, and are there cultural differences? This is one of the questions Henderika (Herie) de Vries wants to answer. Having already discovered that cultural differences impact the creative potential of children, the Dutch-Luxembourgish national hopes to understand more aspects of how our cultural circumstances can influence our capacity for creative thinking.

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: Dominique Santana

After completing her master’s degree, Luxembourg national Dominique Santana decided to spend time in her mother’s birth country Brazil. While there, she became intrigued by Brazil’s communities of Luxembourgish nationals and wanted to investigate further. Now in the first year of her AFR PhD at the C²DH at the University of Luxembourg, Dominique is examining the paths of Luxembourgers who emigrated to Brazil from 1920 – 1965, which has already rekindled old friendships.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Maxime Brami

Archaeologist and trained anthropologist Maxime Brami works on uncovering the origins and spread of agriculture, and has just landed a sought-after Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. We speak to the Luxembourg national about what it’s like to be an archaeologist in academia, the collaborative nature of the field and why archaeologists have a certain responsibility.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Zhe Liu

Zhe Liu’s passion for research grew from a desire to find out how things work and why. Considering himself as a ‘Luxembourg-made Chinese researcher’, Zhe came to Luxembourg in 2011 for his AFR PhD, a project for which he later won an FNR Award for ‘Outstanding PhD Thesis’ in 2016.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Michel Summer

For his AFR PhD at Trinity College Dublin, historian Michel Summer is re-assessing the political activity of medieval Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord, who in addition to being a landowner, scholar and ambassador, founded a monastery in Luxembourg. We spoke to the Luxembourg national about how history promotes critical thinking, and why he believes historians are needed more than ever.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Alex Gansen

Alex Gansen first dabbled in research during his Masters studies in physics at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), and then decided he wanted to take on the challenge of a PhD, so the Luxembourg national returned to his home country. Alex has just submitted his thesis at the end of the 4th year of his AFR PhD in computational electromagnetics at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) in collaboration with the College of Engineering in Swansea. He sees the close links between local industry and research in Luxembourg as a great advantage for the future of research in the Grand Duchy.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Damien Brevers

Postdoc Damien Brevers has a passion for studying self-control abilities in humans. Having spent time in Belgium and the US building expertise in areas including clinical psychology, sport psychology and brain imaging, the Belgian national has just joined the University of Luxembourg and embarked on a project looking at gambling addiction in the age of online betting.

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: László Sándor

For László Sándor research is the ultimate war against ‘fake news’. After completing his PhD in Economics at Harvard, the Hungarian-American national chose a Postdoc position at the Luxembourg School of Finance at the University of Luxembourg, where his work includes big data projects, field experiments in household finance and applied microeconomics.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Gil Georges

Gil Georges is driven by the quest for knowledge and strives to have a real impact, beyond publications. The Luxembourg national has just made the jump from early-career researcher to lecturer and group leader at the IET-LAV at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, where the data analyst and modeller gets to use one of Europe’s most powerful super computers when it is time for some serious number crunching.

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