Not only does the mentor transform the careers of the students, but also vice versa.”
Prof. Dr. Stéphane Bordas, full professor of computational mechanics at the University of Luxembourg, works at the interface between applied mathematics and applications in engineering, medicine, and biology. He is the team leader of the computational mechanics-focused Legato Team and founded the company Ariana Tech to develop an app for COVID-19. In 2020, the research platform Web of Science recognized Prof. Dr. Bordas for the sixth consecutive time as one of the world’s most influential scientists in its annual list of “Highly Cited Researchers.” Prof. Dr. Bordas—one of Global Talent Mentoring’s notable mentors—shared insights about his breakthrough work and the benefits of mentoring.
My team, called Legato Team, is working on the interface between computational science and data science. The goal of computational science is to come up with algorithms that are able to simulate the world around us and also physical phenomena that are of interest. A very simple problem would be the following: You have a steel bar in your hand that is heated on one side, and you would like to know how long it takes until your hand will be burned. So, first you have to understand how the heat is propagating inside the steel bar. If you know that, you can figure out how long it will take until your finger will be burned. So, essentially, we write equations that explain what happens around us in the world, inside the body, in the population, or in society. We try to distill the important points to make conclusions and help people to make decisions.
The traditional approach is the one that Isaac Newton used. He watched apples falling from trees. Then he deduced that perhaps there was a universal law related to the fact that objects were falling from the tree. He called that the law of gravity. Basically, this is an equation. You can use this equation for other occasions where you have not observed the phenomenon itself. Today, you do not have to look all day at things falling from the sky or stars revolving around another star or planets revolving around the sun, because you have unlimited information.
At the moment, we are in between. You can write down equations to describe the phenomena like heat conduction, gravitation, quantum mechanics, and composites or materials for aerospace. These equations were tested over a long period of time. On the other hand, if you look at COVID-19 or social media like Twitter or Instagram, you cannot write down equations that will tell you, for example, the probability of someone tweeting a picture of a Coca-Cola bottle in the next five minutes is 75 %. But looking at the data, inferring what has taken place in the past might give you an idea of what will happen in the future. You can use machine learning and artificial intelligence tools to update your knowledge and learn from what you observe in real time, because the machines are so powerful now. They are doing the job that Newton did himself! They need a lot of energy, however, which is not so efficient. At the end of the day, they try to extract simplicity from complexity. This is the idea.
Originally, I started in the field of fracture mechanics. The idea is to predict the lifetime of components used in aerospace. If you design an aircraft, you know that it will develop cracks and fractures. You would also like to know how long the life of these components will be and how long this aircraft can fly before it will become too dangerous. The questions will be: What are the material properties of this aircraft? How many take-offs and landings can it take? Etc. The results of our research in this field were implemented in commercial software developed in Belgium. We made a connection between research and industrial application. Now, this software is used to send rockets into space and make airplanes lighter. This was the first transformation between academic research and commercial software. I find this really exciting! The second thing to explore was this: If we can manage to look at cracks, maybe we can look at other discontinuities and cuts.
We started working with brain surgeons in order to insert needles into the brain and cure diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. We wanted to be sure of the results, because it is quite a problem when you do not insert the needles in the right place. And you have to do it very fast. The surgeon cannot wait for two days until the solutions come from the computer. He or she has to have the data in less than a second. This was the tricky part in the second phase of my development. This led to a scientific first, because we were able to compute the errors in real time. This had never been done before! Hopefully, we will make our invention useful for practice, but this has not been done yet. Unfortunately, it is not applicable at the moment. It is quite difficult to get into the medical field because there are many regulations and you cannot come from outside and say “Now I will change everything.” You need to take it step by step. We can use our invention as a training tool for medical students, because it is much cheaper than to operate on cadavers or silicone replicas.
The most exciting work I have done was always at the interface of other disciplines I did not know anything about.
I have been mentoring young people—especially women—for 15 years or so, trying to help them make their way through STEMM subjects. I have been desperately trying to get more women into engineering subjects, because I realized there is a big lack of support for female scientists. With support, I do not mean quotas, but relationships like those one has in mentoring programs. People should invest time. This happened with me from the beginning. When I had my first academic post at the University of Glasgow in 2006, I had absolutely no experience. I was almost like a breastfed baby out of the crib. Then I met Prof. Dr. Nenad Bićanić and Prof. Dr. Chris Pearce. They helped me by allowing me to express myself, but still guiding me without stifling my creativity.
They allowed me to develop and learn while making fewer mistakes. They helped me with writing grant applications and figuring out priorities. Dealing with priorities is one of the biggest problems in academia. Unless you prioritize, you will surely fail in developing your career. People expect you to do everything! You will have to be an excellent teacher and an excellent researcher; you need to get money from grants; you have to think commercially and sell your research results; you need to attract the best talents from around the world; you have to be an HR manager … The list goes on! You have to do everything on your own. It is like having a small business, although it is not a business, but academia. Without focusing and prioritizing early on, people can drown very easily.
Not only does the mentor transform the career of the student, but also vice versa. If you have a good, self-motivated, hardworking student, you can invest your time in helping him or her become even better. You also have more time to do things where your expertise is really necessary. It is so important when you can rely on people. Prof. Dr. Bhushan Karihaloo recruited me at Cardiff University when I arrived there at a very young age. He fostered my talents based on my potential and not on my results.
Usually, people look at numbers. You need to have so many publications, citations, and patents. You need to have so many licenses, customers, and millions of dollars in your company. In the end, you drown in numbers and become a number yourself. Bhushan saw something in me apart from numbers, which he liked. He thought, “I can work with this person.” It is so important to share the same chemistry with people, because in academia it is all about creativity and not simply about being smart and solving problems. You have to be creative like an artist. You cannot be pushed by numbers all day. Bhushan trusted me, which was lucky, because it gave me such momentum that enabled me to feel very self-confident. This was the key.
Online mentoring is flexible. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, it is as good as teaching person to person—maybe even better, because it is less intrusive. I have been a mentor for eight years and, for this, I use a lot of technology. So I can communicate with numerous people from around the world with different backgrounds. If we cannot meet face-to-face, then we exchange voice messages. I can listen to them when I have time, think about them, and answer them later. What I also like is that you can have access to more people through a wide network.
This variety is very helpful. I remember having been mentored by a psychologist who had a lot to say about developing a career in academia. She told me many things that someone from a STEMM background might not have been able to tell me. You have no boundaries. You can mentor students in India or in Africa, in developing countries … everywhere. This would be impossible to do in person.