Interview with mentor and distinguished researcher Prof. Dr. Stéphane Bordas

Not only does the men­tor trans­form the careers of the stu­dents, but also vice versa.”

Prof. Dr. Stephane Bordas

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.

Please explain the focus of your research and work.
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.
In which way does col­lect­ing data change your work?
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.
Does that mean when you have a lot of infor­ma­tion, you may get rid of the equations?
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.
Regard­ing your CV, one can trace one cen­tral theme: bridg­ing the gap between aca­d­e­m­ic research and indus­tri­al appli­ca­tion. Would you please tell us a bit more about your cur­rent projects?
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.
In one of your recent projects, “RealT­Cut,” you devel­oped a real-time sim­u­la­tor for sur­geons. Can you tell us about this?
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.
Recent­ly, you found­ed the com­pa­ny Ari­ana Tech to devel­op an app for COVID-19. Can you tell us about this?
For this, we went direct­ly from aca­d­e­m­ic research results to prac­tice in less than three months, which is a very short time. Nor­mal­ly, it takes ten years from the first idea to its imple­men­ta­tion in com­mer­cial software—and this is sup­posed to be fast. We were very for­tu­nate to have thought of this idea before the cri­sis, so we were ready to launch the app. The prob­lem was that the politi­cians did not know whether they want­ed an app or not. The coor­di­na­tion on the Euro­pean lev­el has been a chal­lenge for every­body. My con­clu­sion is that the most excit­ing work I have done was always at the inter­face of oth­er dis­ci­plines I did not know any­thing about. The first was aero­space, the sec­ond med­i­cine and surgery, and the third med­i­cine, psy­chol­o­gy, and law. Legal aspects became rel­e­vant, because we had to under­stand the EU Gen­er­al Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion (GDPR) and pri­va­cy pol­i­cy in order to launch an app like this.
Look­ing at your career, you did extra­or­di­nary things already at a very ear­ly age. Was there some­one who inspired you? Some­one who men­tored you?
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.
In which ways did your men­tors sup­port you?
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.
In which way do men­tors ben­e­fit from work­ing with their mentees?
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.
This seems to be very rare today.
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.
What advan­tages do you see in online mentoring?
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.
Online men­tor­ing also allows mentees to have access to a large pool of men­tors. Why do you think this is the case?
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.

1 comment

  1. Ahmad Alrub

    It is a very good oppor­tu­ni­ty to read this inter­view about this dis­tin­guished professor

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