#NotJustALabCoat — An interview with Antoine Buchard

Posted in: Community, Interviews

Meet Antoine Buchard, Reader with a capital ‘R’. Besides being a Reader in Chemistry at the University of Bath, Antoine is also a hardcore reader of manga who owns a rather handsome collection of graphic novels.

In this interview, Antoine talks about his work in sustainable plastics, tells us how his health conditions have shaped but not limited him, and revisits childhood memories in Bath as a yellow-backpack-wearing, ‘annoying’ child.

Can you tell us more about your involvement with the CSCT?

I joined the CSCT in April 2013 as a Whorrod Research Fellow, a position funded by the endowment from University alumni Roger and Sue Whorrod. In 2010, Roger and Sue donated a large sum of money to the CSCT to help early-career researchers set up their independent research around sustainable chemical technologies. Thanks to their continuous support (including moral), I have been able to set up my own lab and research group, test my ideas, supervise and graduate PhD students, publish some papers… Everything aspiring academics dream of!

I have also been involved in various outreach activities with the CSCT, including public discussions, visits to schools, etc. But crucially, I have created strong personal and professional links with other researchers at the CSCT, and together we have been able to do excellent science and engineering. We have also attracted some funding back to the CSCT and the University, so that we can continue to be a beacon in the UK in the field of sustainable technologies.

Can you tell us more about your field of work?

My own field of expertise is around polymers, which are the main “ingredient” of plastics. I work on creating polymers from sugars.

Every single one of us uses plastics, and they are highly beneficial to society. However, as fossil fuel resources are becoming increasingly precious and as the ultimate fate of plastics and the pollution associated with them become a global concern, the way we produce and use them is not sustainable.

Using renewable feedstocks, such as sugars derived from waste, the aim of my research is to produce sustainable materials that are still usable but that can be degraded and recycled more easily. The benefit of using sugars is that they are cheap, abundant, environmentally benign and can also be obtained from non-edible crops. They are also really easy to manipulate, so we could potentially produce every type of plastics we need in a sustainable way.

In our lab, we are working on several aspects of this wider project. We are developing chemical reactions to transform natural sugar into useful monomers (the building blocks that link together to form plastics), for example by combining them with carbon dioxide, another interesting abundant feedstock.

We are also investigating better ways to make polymers, for example by designing more efficient and selective catalysts, which are chemicals/substances that accelerate reactions and control the properties of the resulting material. Recently, we have reported a way to use the same building block to create a soft or hard polymer, with potential applications in elastic materials like adhesive or even tyres.

We have also developed solid metal catalysts that can be used and reused, and that leave very little metal residues in the final polymer product, which can sometimes be a concern when their toxicity is not known.

Finally, we are increasingly interested in how the new plastics we make can be used, whether it is as films for packaging, as sensing materials for medical testing devices, or as degradable components for batteries.

How did your interest in chemistry develop?

I actually chose chemistry quite late in my studies (I did a sort of Natural Sciences and Engineering degree), and I chose it for several reasons:

  • The artistic dimension to it when creating or imagining new molecules or reactions
  • The practical aspect of experimental chemistry — it requires real skill to be a good experimental chemist, plus you get pretty quick results compared to some other sciences
  • The intellectual challenge of designing a hypothesis and the reaction that will test it
  • The analysis of the data obtained after performing an experiment — it is often incredibly messy and can become true detective work

Chemistry is also at the heart of many other sciences and industries, so, at the time, it felt like a sensible choice!

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered in your career?

Unfortunately, like for many others, my life has been shaped by illnesses and health conditions — affecting the people around me but also myself.

Since the age of 11, I have a chronic rheumatic disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis (or AS). It is a long-term condition in which the spine and other areas of the body become inflamed. The disease can be quite severe and, back when I was a kid, the treatments were not as developed as today.

For many years I struggled to walk and could not do things other teenagers would do, like running or playing sports.

I’ve never been vocal about this — this is actually the first time I speak about it publicly — and I certainly do not share this now so that people feel sorry about me. I just wish that, when I was younger, AS had had more visibility — my family and I could have realised (more quickly) that this condition will never stop me from doing anything.

Coincidently, the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases Bath is internationally recognised for its work on AS, and the staff there are doing an incredible job, including in raising awareness about AS. So, this is my small contribution to their efforts.

In addition, unfortunately, I had testicular cancer over the summer (I must have done pretty bad things in a previous life!). Again, this is my opportunity to raise awareness about this disease and give a shout out to the teams at Bath and Bristol that took care of me. Testicular cancer is highly curable if discovered in time, and there are many things that men can do to facilitate this.

All these experiences have made me incredibly grateful to be able to do a job I like and to be surrounded by friends and family every day. It may be naïve, but it has also put a great deal of perspective on a lot of things, including the daily pressure we put ourselves through in our jobs.

Of course, I’m not saying that you should not submit your work on time! And don’t get me wrong — despite getting the extra perspective mentioned above, I still get (very) grumpy and (very) annoyed (very) often…

What have you found most rewarding about the academic world?

One of the perks of the academic world is definitely being surrounded by highly intelligent and really driven people who, in general, have all the ambition to advance knowledge for the common and greater good and are not looking for individual gratification or profit.

I also like the freedom of academia and the equality that scientific problems offer. The pursuit of knowledge is about the quality of ideas and their ability to solve problems. This should never be blurred by who or where these ideas come from.

Finally, working among and training young people (who seem to get younger and younger every year) is also very enjoyable. Their energy and enthusiasm feed into my own, and seeing them mature as scientists and as individuals gives me enormous satisfaction.

What’s a ‘normal day at the office’ for you?

I don’t think there is ever a normal day at the office, and that’s actually one of the reasons I like what I do. Paradoxically, I am pretty uptight about organisation and try to organise my day the night before, but it often goes haywire!

My main role at the University is to do research (I am a Royal Society University Research Fellow since 2017), so I usually block my mornings for this. My research work involves activities such as reading literature, writing or reviewing papers and grants applications, and analysing (and trying to make sense of) results that we have gathered recently. Discussing data, sharing hypotheses, bouncing ideas and disputing them with other researchers is vital in research, and definitely what I enjoy the most.

I always try to have students question their beliefs and support everything they do or claim with observations and data. I was taught Cartesian Philosophy in high school and it really stuck with me. It adds some extra discussion to my mornings!

Afternoons are for pretty much everything else, in particular meetings and the multitude of jobs that my research group leader role involves: looking after the finances of the group and the good running of the lab, promoting our work on social media, preparing talks for conferences and external seminars, engaging with industrial partners and other collaborators, and managing the human side of the group (which is actually quite interesting).

I am also teaching at undergraduate level for our chemistry degrees, giving lectures and practical classes.

What are the best memories of your PhD?

My PhD as a whole was a wonderful time and I have too many good memories of it to single one out. I was living in Paris, in a small flat under the roofs of a Haussmannian building. I was surrounded by friends and I was doing research (and getting paid for it!) in an incredibly supportive lab where I met incredibly talented and inspiring people. This was definitely the time of my life during which I grew up the most as a person.

It was during my PhD that I learnt to be professional, became more confident in my abilities and accepted that research was the right choice for me —although I had suspected it before.

If I really had to pick two or three highlights, one would be my PhD supervisor, Professor Pascal Le Floch who, sadly, became very ill during my PhD and passed away shortly after. He was an incredibly creative scientist who I have missed very much since.

Another little thing would be how we used to go running in a forest nearby at lunchtime with a couple of friends and a half marathon we did together.

Also, the placement I did at Imperial College London in Professor Charlotte Williams’ group. I remember it vividly; getting off the Eurostar at St Pancras station, listening to David Bowie’s ‘In the Heat of the Morning’, not really knowing what would come out of the whole experience. Little did I know that it would profoundly affect me both professionally and personally. I later returned to London to join the same group as a post-doc, where I met my wife and got really interested in polymers.

What tip would you give your PhD self if you could go back in time?

If I could go back in time, there are a lot of things I would do before giving my PhD self some advice!

To my PhD self, I would say: “Make the most of it, enjoy, but use your time wisely, try more difficult and ambitious things, and look at the big picture”. I think one of the difficulties of a PhD is that it is easy to dig ourselves in a hole and not see past the little corner we are exploring. We often ignore why we are doing things. I am not saying that everything we research has to immediately save the world, but there should always be an ambition to do novel things and advance scientific knowledge.

I would also tell myself to think a bit more about the future — I was certainly guilty of not thinking about it too much and not preparing enough for my next steps.

My final tip would be: “Be grateful for the support you have and for what other people are doing for you”. I have since realised how extremely lucky I have been. My project went well but, even during hard times (getting scooped was mildly annoying for example), I never felt isolated and always had someone to help me turn problems around. What I did not appreciate at the time was the amount of work and pressure that my supervisors were under and how well they protected us from it.

What do you think is the most pressing sustainability issue and why?

It is hard to pick one, but I think harnessing sustainable energy is definitely high on my list. Energy is central to everything we do. There are a lot of technologies out there that have the potential to address a lot of our societal challenges (sanitation, transport, utilisation of biomass, recycling technologies, etc) but unless we have a cheap, renewable and storable source of energy, these will never become viable.

Secondly, I think it is important that we break free from our fossil fuel dependency — not just for energy, but also to provide all the essential chemical building blocks that we use to make pretty much everything around us, such as medicine, plastic materials, etc. We are going to reach a point when we will run out of fossil fuels, as the time scale needed to form these resources (hundreds of millions of years) is too large compared to the pace at which we are using them. In some cases, the chemistry to transform biomass into the materials and chemicals we need already exists, but in some others it does not, and this is why research in this area is important. Imagine, for example, a world where fossil-fuel resources are so scarce that basic things like pain-killers become precious — that would be terrible.

These two issues are actually connected. Indeed, sustainable energy will be needed to transform biomass into chemicals. Furthermore, with unlimited cheap energy, it would become feasible to transform carbon dioxide — or any products that store fossil carbon, such as plastic waste — back into useful chemical building blocks. This would allow to only continue using fossil-fuel based resources when we know of no alternative.

What do you think is/are the biggest scientific breakthrough(s) in your lifetime and why?

I think everything that relates to the development of personal computers and telecommunications has been a major breakthrough. It has really transformed our way of living and working, and has enabled many scientific discoveries. And I am confident that this is only the beginning.

I also think the progress we have seen recently in terms of genetic material engineering (polymerase chain reactions, directed evolution of enzymes, CRISPR gene editing, etc) is huge. Not only has this been pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding of life, but it is also having deep consequences on new therapies and global health. In general, I am really admiring of any discoveries that have helped people become healthier, and it feels like enormous progress has been made since I was young. Think about cancer — in many cases, there is now hope!

Is there a scientific advance you really wish you will see in your lifetime?

This has nothing to do with chemistry or sustainability and I am not sure it is really a scientific advance, but I would really like to see some evidence of alien life… It would shake beliefs so much that I hope it would somehow unite people in the world.

I would also settle for some kind of speed-of-light or time-travel-related discovery.

France vs Britain…?

I need to be careful about what I say here because I’ve started my naturalisation process…
I’m still very attached to France — it has given me a lot and has so many things the UK lacks (the food, the weather, a great national football team…).

I miss my friends and family most of all, but I am happy here — I like the culture and the people. I have found British people to be more pragmatic, more tolerant of differences, and more open to change than French people. However, we are still more similar than we like to admit! We share our history and our contemporary cultural references (music, literature, cinema, sport, etc). Although maybe I feel this way because I was exposed to British culture very early on.

Every summer as a teenager, my parents used to send me to the UK to learn English. I was one of those ‘annoying kids’ with coloured backpacks you see everywhere in Bath during the summer! I actually spent the summer of 1995 in Bath, spending my time between language lessons, playing laser tag and staying with a host family whose name or addresses I can’t find anywhere.

Now that I’ve left France, my parents blame themselves for sending me to the UK… The fact that Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox was one of my first books didn’t help either!

I think the UK offers more opportunities for early-career researchers to become independent and establish their own research activity. It’s not just about the funding, but also the freedom given to young researchers (which can sometimes be daunting). My wife is British, which was an added bonus for us to come back.

Will I ever move back to France? I don’t know, to be honest. However, I am still very consciously transmitting this French heritage to my son, so we try to visit at least twice a year.

What do you do when you’re not in the office?  

When I’m not in the office, I mainly spend time with my four-year-old son. We play with cars, Lego, Transformers and video games; we go on bike rides or swimming; we play tennis... I’ve played tennis since I was a kid but my ambition of international fame and glory were quickly shattered! Now I take my son to tennis. When I can finally relax, I do not mind the occasional run, a video game or a nice read. I used to play the piano and the guitar and sang in a choir at University, but I’ve put music aside a bit (I definitely need to pick that up again). I also dream of having some time to start playing golf.

Any favourite reads or preferred genres?

I have only ever read fiction. I like being immersed in a story, especially if it has nothing to do with reality, so I very much embrace science-fiction and fantasy. Beyond the technological or magical geekiness of it, these genres allow us to explore worlds and models of societies that reflect our deepest aspirations and fears, and ask important questions.

I also love graphic novels, a very popular genre in France (bandes dessinees). I have a collection of over a thousand Japanese manga volumes that I started when I was 11. Sadly, they’re still in France as I don’t have storage space here.

Who are you inspired by?

At every important stage of my life and career, I have had one or two role models in sight. I will not tell you who they are, though, because sometimes I failed to be like them by a long way!

I am definitely an amalgamation of everyone I have ever met. From almost every person I meet I very consciously steal something — a gesture, a little turn of phrase or a way not to behave. In general, I am interested in people with a vision, a clear idea of where they want to be, what they want to achieve and how to get there.

If you won a million pounds, what would you do with them?

A million pounds is not a lot, to be honest, when you compare it to the Euromillion jackpot or what some people earn. It’s likely that I would do something extremely boring like paying my mortgage or save it to secure a decent pension.

However, If I won 130 million  (like in the last Euromillion jackpot) things would become way more interesting. I would build schools, fund my own research and a new Chemistry building at the Uni. It would be interesting to have the same academic job without the pressure of funding. I think I would donate a lot, all to education-related projects — not because I am a nice person but because I think an educated new generation is the solution to many of our problems.

If you hadn’t been a chemist, what would you be?

A writer of some sort, since I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm. It could still happen, but now neither my French nor my English are good enough, so my books would probably be terrible…

What makes you smile?

I have to admit I have a weakness for a tidy home, office, desk, lab and so on. I am definitely a bit obsessed with cleaning. It runs in the family, actually (see photo with my son).

There are a couple of moments in a student’s project that never fail to make me happy. Getting a paper accepted or winning a grant never get old, but the moment in a project when something starts to emerge, when there is the first hint of novelty and understanding, when they see the first promise of a publication… that moment is a great one.

Although handing a PhD thesis or defending a viva are necessary milestones, I attach less importance to them. For me, most of the time, the PhD has been decided continuously over the entire length of the PhD.

A lot of other things make me smile, and even laugh, on a daily basis. The University is a great place for people watching. With so many people and a bit of observation and patience, you’re bound to stumble upon something funny every day.

Fun facts about you?

Some colleagues think I collect scarves, but that’s not true — they are just an essential clothing item!

When I was a student at the Ecole Polytechnique, I once marched on the Champ Elysees in Paris on Bastille Day 2004, following a troop of Grenadiers Guards, who had been invited to the parade to mark the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale (which served to settle disagreements between England and France).

And I recently had tea at Buckingham Palace!

Find out more about Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) and testicular cancer, and what you can do to help.

Posted in: Community, Interviews


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