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: Mohammad Zare

Floods across the world have resulted in tremendous economic damage and loss of lives: better tools to predict flood rise and recession are needed. The biggest question facing researchers like Mohammad Zare is how to accurately simulate and predict this complex phenomenon. As part of an Industrial Fellowship between the University of Luxembourg and company RSS-Hydro, the Postdoc Works on improving the simulation and prediction of flash floods, with the goal to develop a decision-making model for flood protection in Luxembourg.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Environmental factors and their role in Parkinson’s Disease

An estimated 10% of Parkinson’s Diseases cases are due to genetic factors – in the search for answers as to what could cause the other 90%, research is increasingly finding evidence pointing to environmental factors. To paint a clearer picture of what role chemicals could play in the disease, researchers are for example looking for ‘fingerprints’ of chemicals in biological samples.

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: Amy Parrish

During her Master’s studies, Amy Parrish found her passion for research with a clinical aspect. Having come from London to Luxembourg to pursue her AFR PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) in the research group of Mahesh Desai, the American national studies the bacteria that inhabit our gut, to shed light on the development of diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

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: Multiple nationalities, one goal

What do a French, a Spanish, a Brazilian and an Algerian researcher have in common? In the case of Adeline Boileau, Antonio Salgado Somoza, Clarissa P. C. Gomes and Torkia Lalem, it’s that they are all early-career researchers who came to Luxembourg to join forces in the Cardiovascular Research Unit (CVRU) at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), which aims to identify new personalised strategies to diagnose and treat cardiovascular disease.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Maciej Piotr Chrzanowski

Maciej Piotr Chrzanowski never thought he would become a researcher, but a successful attempt at applying for a PhD changed all of that, and the Polish national found himself moving to Luxembourg. Now in the 3rd year of his AFR-PPP PhD, Maciej is embedded both at the University of Luxembourg and in R&D Application Department of steel manufacturing corporation ArcelorMittal, where he works on development of new solutions for structures.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Bella Tsachidou

Excessive use of fertilisers in agriculture has led to nitrogen pollution, and calls for bio substitutes are getting louder. PhD candidate Bella Tsachidou from Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) gathers scientific evidence on the benefits of biogas residues and their suitability as biofertilisers, while providing support for the modification of nitrogen-policies on European and global level.

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: The role a gene plays in neurodegeneration and cancer

Neurogenerative diseases and cancer affect millions of people worldwide, especially people over 60. While advances in diagnosis and treatment have been made, there are still many open questions on the path to better treatment and earlier diagnosis. Translational neuroscientist Pauline Mencke studies a gene that is involved both in Parkinson’s disease and the brain cancer Glioblastoma multiforme.

Spotlight on Young Researchers – revisited 5 years later: A post-PhD life in finance

When Eric Finn Schaanning was featured in Spotlight on Young Researchers in 2017, he had just defended his AFR PhD on fire sales and systemic risk in financial networks at Imperial College London. In 2017, Eric attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and in 2018, won an FNR Award for his PhD thesis. 5 years after his PhD, we catch up with Eric, who has been working on cyber risks, financial and regulatory stress tests as well operational risk management – a career spanning Norway, Frankfurt and Zürich – and reflect on the value his PhD has added.

A system to support forest ecosystem decision-making

Industry and research join forces on many fronts, including the sustainable use of natural resources. Postdoc Claudio Petucco works on developing a decision support system for enhancing and assessing the provision of forest ecosystem services. The goal: improving the sustainable use of natural resources in Luxembourg.

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: 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: Sebastian Scheer

Senior Postdoc Sebastian Scheer’s thirst for understanding how biological systems work led him to dive into the world of immunology research. After moving from Germany to Canada, the Luxembourg national got the chance to set up his group leader’s new lab in Australia, where his research revolves around the T cell, a key player in the shaping of immune responses.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Remko Nijzink

Climate change affects vegetation and water resources. In order to understand these changes, scientists use models – an abstract, mathematical representation of an ecological system. The challenge: Making accurate predictions under change, without ‘tuning’ models with data. We speak to Dutch national Remko Nijzink, Postdoc in the group of FNR ATTRACT Fellow Dr. Stan Schymanski at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), about his modelling work and the importance of an open science approach.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Hameeda Jagalur Basheer

While solar panels appear on more and more rooftops, researchers are still developing ways to boost their efficiency. As part of her PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), Indian national Hameeda Jagalur Basheer is developing alternative materials that can help capture the sunlight better and improve efficiency of solar panels.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: How is scientific quality fostered by research collaboration?

In the last decades, how research is conducted has been profoundly changed by ICT, and there has also been a shift from the ‘sole genius’ towards teamwork and especially interdisciplinarity: Today, millions of researchers worldwide collaborate across organisational, disciplinary, and cultural boundaries, extending the possibilities of new scientific discovery. This, and the associated data, has paved the way for the scientific field Science of Science, where one key question is understanding exactly how scientific quality is fostered by research collaboration.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Neighbourhood characteristics as determinants of health

Unhealthy lifestyles – unbalanced diet and physical inactivity – are the main factor in the leading cause of death in the world: cardiometabolic disease. Our socioeconomic environment plays a role in these lifestyle choices. Over a 9-year period, researchers are looking at how socio-economic and physical environmental characteristics of residential neighbourhoods shape our physical activity, nutritional behaviour and cardiometabolic health.

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: Christof Ferreira Torres

Can we truly trust current blockchain technology to securely automate important processes in the financial sector? Christof Ferreira Torres wants to answer this question. In the framework of his Industrial Fellowship PhD with the University of Luxembourg and the bank Spuerkeess (BCEE), the Portuguese national works on the security of smart contracts and the detection of fraudulent transactions – because gaps in security can quickly mean high costs for thousands of people.

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: 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: Paulo Carvalho

Having started his professional career 16 years ago, Paulo Carvalho did not plan any major career changes. Then an opportunity came up that would change work life as he knew it and a few years later, the French/Portuguese national is completing his PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST).

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Turning up the heat on solar absorbers

Using solar absorbers for collection and storage of heat from the sun is an environmentally friendly way to generate heat, yet only 16% of heating is generated from renewable energy. Material scientists are looking for ways to boost this number by making the solar absorber coatings more efficient.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies for analytics purposes. Find out more in our Privacy Statement