ISACB eCirculator Interview: Nicolas L'Heureux


Name: Nicolas L’Heureux

Title: Director of Research at INSERM (the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research); working at the Laboratory for the Bioengineering of Tissues (BioTis), Unit 1026 at the University of Bordeaux.




Describe your research in a tweet (< 140 characters):

Creating human blood vessels, only using the ECM made by cells in culture, that can be transplanted in patients to save or improve lives.


What is your relationship with ISACB?

I am currently on the Executive Committee of the Society and I am the chair person for the next meeting in Bordeaux.


Why did you get involved with ISACB, and what are your favorite things about the society?

I discovered the ISACB when I attended a meeting. I was amazed by the quality and the relevance of the presentation to my work.  There was also the fact that this was a small meeting so I could actually talk to some of the pioneers in my field and some of my scientific idols.  Going to the usual mega meeting, I really felt sometimes like I was spending a week to only get a day’s worth of information.  This more intimate/ social quality of the meeting also translates in the Society which promotes collaboration with like-minded individuals with a focus on getting something to the clinic, but still looking at the dogma-breaking ideas of the future.


What is a routine day in your lab?

Routine is not the word I would use!  There always seems to be something new and unexpected happening.  Working with cells in complex, long-term, culture system involves a lot of moving parts and variables.  Working with cells from various donors and various species also add a degree of variability.  Nonetheless, the changing of media certainly can be seen as routine!  Three times a week, every week of the year!! It requires very good hand-eye coordination and serious training to be able to keep tissue cultures sterile, without antibiotics, for months at a time.  Of course, this is not my routine anymore.  For the head of the lab, the routine is answering emails!


You have a truly international research background. What do you think the research/funding systems in North America could learn from those in Europe and vice versa? Any thoughts on the best ways to establish international collaborations?

I have been in Europe for only 3 years so I am still learning.  And Europe is not a uniform system.  I am starting to understand the French system pretty well.  I won a grant from the main French funding agency shortly after arriving.  I was lucky because the funding rate is also very competitive here (about 10%).  One difference is that the salaries of the researchers are not linked to the grants.  The salaries of the researchers and the staff in my unit are given by the INSERM or the University of Bordeaux, and are guaranteed (i.e. these are permanent positions).  So, the amounts may seem small but they are only for consumables and equipment.  Another difference is that some amount of money is given to the lab (by the INSERM and the University) regardless.  The stability that comes from this security can allow researchers to be less stressed and let them focus on longer-term goals, work on less “trendy” subjects, and, maybe, publish more solid/honest work? The downside is that there is less urgency and that can translate in less motivation and productivity. That being said, the system is changing and proportionally more money is coming from grants as the yearly stipends tend to stagnate/shrink. Also, there are more and more technical staff hired on contract. So, things are moving more towards the US system.  From the grant submission stand point, the French have a really smart system where you send a first submission that is only 5 pages long.  It gets reviewed and, if you pass, you get to send the long version (25 pages).  I personally think that the 25 pages is a little much, but I like the strategy.

The European government also funds research using large collaborative grants involving many many groups at a time.  This is obviously meant to foster inter EU-member collaborations.   There is also a system for funding individuals at various stages of their career (starting, consolidating, advanced).  I was lucky to get an “advanced” grant this year so I can’t complain.

One think that is common to both the French and the European system is the complex bureaucracy. My overall feeling is that the US system tends to trust the researcher more than the French/European that tends to want to over plan and micromanage.

Regarding international collaboration, these can be hard to manage to be fruitful.  Sometimes, these are only created because there is funding for it.  On the other hand, sometimes it is hard to use your funding for an international collaboration with solid scientific justifications because of administrative limitations (here anyway).  One thing that is very valuable in collaborations is the human factor and leaning how people see and do things differently in different countries.


How did you become interested in cardiovascular research in general and vascular tissue engineering in particular?

This was the subject proposed as a master thesis in a Lab in Québec and I though it looked cool compared to the more “abstract” subjects. I always liked to build things and understand how things work.  Like many other scientists, I was the kind of kid that would pull things apart from a very young age. While I am a biochemist by training, I felt I had more an engineer mindset.  So, tissue engineering ended up being the perfect choice for me.  The vascular aspect really was just a question of chance.


If you could solve one research problem, what would it be?

In general, I think the biggest problem we are facing is the climate change so I method to capture carbon in the air would be great. 


What advice would you give to trainees seeking a career in research?

Science is a tough business.  It is often rated as the highest work/benefit ratio job and I think trainees should go into it with open eyes.  It has to be a calling and not a job.  You have to really value discovery and progress because of all the sacrifices it requires.  That being said, I have a hard time imagining doing anything else.


What is one non-conference thing (restaurant, winery, sight-seeing, etc…) that you would recommend to attendees of the ISACB meeting in Bordeaux?

Obviously, this is wine country!  There are a myriad of towns and chateaux to visit in short proximity of Bordeaux.  Even without leaving the city, you can go visit the new wine museum (Cité du Vin) with very imaginative and interactive activities.  Of course, with wine comes the food!!  The South-West of France is well-known for its cuisine which features duck and foie-gras.  The old city is filled with restaurants featuring all kinds of cuisine.  The heart of Bordeaux is a UNESCO heritage site and, particularly for North Americans, is a very picturesque European city.  As my kids like to say: “it looks like we are in a movie”.  Also, people often forget that Bordeaux is close to the ocean (1 hr drive).  There is a train to Arcachon every hour that lets you go see this spectacular bay with Europe’s tallest sand dune.  Oysters are also a specialty of the region.


Any final thoughts?

The ISACB really offers a chance to be part of a unique community with many common interests.  I am that this European edition of the meeting will be a fabulous event and that it will be an opportunity to include more European members in the Society.

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