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.

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Zhe Liu

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Damien Brevers

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Paul Johanns

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Maciej Piotr Chrzanowski

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Xianqing Mao

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Maria Pires Pacheco

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Mohammad Zare

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Lisa Hefele

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Jo Hoeser

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Sumit Gautam

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Multiple nationalities, one goal

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Eric Finn Schaanning

Eric Finn Schaanning was drawn to research by a thirst to understand what mechanisms drove the financial crisis. He has just defended his AFR PhD at Imperial College London, during which he developed an operational ‘stress test’ model that is already being used by two European Central Banks. The half Luxembourg, half Norwegian national is now a Senior Advisor at Norges Bank, where he continues to analyse and help improve understanding of how financial institutions react to economic shocks.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Foni Raphaël Lebrun-Ricalens

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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Hussein Rappel

Hussein Rappel uses a mathematical learning approach to try to predict and simulate physical phenomena. The Iranian national came to Luxembourg in 2014 to join the team of Prof Stephane Bordas at the University of Luxembourg, where he is now in the 3rd year of his PhD in Computational Science – and sees great potential in Luxembourg as a research destination.

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: Carole Lara Veiga de Sousa

Why can our bodies defend itself against some diseases but not others? This is something Carole Lara Veiga de Sousa has always been eager to understand. In the framework of her PhD at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), the Portuguese national took at closer look at the microglial cells – immune cells in the central nervous system – and what impact they have on the brain’s ability to fend of infections.

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: Antoun Al Absi

Antoun Al Absi has been fascinated by microscopes ever since his parents gave him one as a child. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian-French national cherishes the long hours spent on the microscope as part of his AFR PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), where he investigates how tumour cells escape the ‘immune surveillance system’, enabling them to spread to other parts of the body.

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: 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: Understanding our immune system

Stemming from Italy, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain, the members of the Experimental & Molecular Immunology Group truly are an international team. In the group of FNR ATTRACT Fellow Prof Dr Dirk Brenner at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), the team of young researchers investigates different aspects of the immune system with one common goal: Understanding how our immune system is regulated by different mechanisms – and how this knowledge can be used to combat disease.

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: Yamila Mariel Omar

As part of her Industrial Fellowship – a collaboration between the University of Luxembourg and company Husky – PhD candidate Yamila Mariel Omar helps industry to monetize their proprietary data by means of big data analytics. We speak to the Argentinian national who also became a mother during her PhD.

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