2016 CNRS silver medal
Mention Arezki Boudaoud to people at the ENS de Lyon and right away you’ll see faces light up and flattering comments pour out: "He’s so kind… and so hard-working." Arezki Boudaoud is a professor at the ENS de Lyon. As a researcher at the Plant Reproduction and Development laboratory (RDP), he leads the team "Biophysics and development". As a child, he read tremendously: all kinds of books, and several per week. While in high school in Algiers, he also prepared for the French baccalaureate. He was admitted to "Ginette" preparatory school and later to the ENS in Paris, to study math and physics. In 2001, when he defended his physics thesis on issues of morphogenesis in physical systems, his thesis directors, Yves Couder and Martine Ben Amar, worked on phyllotaxis, the architecture of plants and the physics of cancer. That’s when he caught the biology bug.
As a postdoc in applied math at MIT, he was semi-independent, which suited him well. He grew interested in the mechanisms of plant growth. "What I liked about MIT, and about the U.S. system in general, is that they have a more pragmatic approach than in France. There are fewer rules and categories. It’s true, I did consider staying in the U.S." But in 2002, he returned to France to work at the CNRS in his thesis lab, in physics. There, he devoted three quarters of his time to morphogenesis in physical systems and the rest to the study of morphogenesis in plants. In 2005-2006, he started collaborating with Yves Couder, from the physics lab of the ENS Ulm, and Jan Traas, of the RDP at the ENS de Lyon. He didn’t know at the time that this encounter with Jan Traas would give a whole new direction to his career. In 2008, he led with Mokhtar Adda-Bedia his own research team at the Ulm physics lab: Morphogenesis and multi-scale phenomena.
In 2009, the ENS de Lyon opened up, within its RDP biology lab, a job as lecturer-researcher accessible to non-biologists. "I think they were planning on hiring a mathematician or a computer scientist. Jan Traas encouraged me to apply." He’d already considered leaving Paris, so the change of scene was not an issue. But applying to the RDP also meant changing fields of research – and no longer being a researcher at the CNRS, but a lecturer and researcher. "It was a matter of seeing my scientific project come to maturity… so I abandoned physics. I still use physicists’ tools but I tackle the questions of a biologist. Between 2009 and 2011 at the RDP I listened, read and learned enormously." As a researcher at the CNRS, he had taught first-year university students at Paris 6 (1). "It was a really heterogeneous audience, a good way to know if you’re cut out for teaching," he says with a smile. "In 2009, I knew I was ready for teaching. And ready to join a biology lab."
In 2010-2011, Arezki answered a call for projects of the Laboratory Joliot-Curie to lead an interdisciplinary project at the crossroads between physics and biology. He was then working with Olivier Hamant and Pradeep Das. In 2012, he obtained an ERC grant for his project The physical basis of morphogenesis in plants. The following year, he was named IUF Junior. Since September 2013, he’s been in charge of the Biosciences Master's. In January 2016, he was named deputy director of the RDP. (2)
His research projects? "The project I’m passionate about is that of the reproducibility of forms." To explain, he places his hands palm to palm: "Both our hands overlap perfectly, they’re identical and yet they did not communicate throughout their development. It’s the same with flowers: all the flowers of one plant look alike. That’s what I want to understand." No, he doesn’t have his own web page. "The lab’s web page is enough."
If you could change something at the ENS de Lyon, what would it be? Without hesitating: "Remove the separation between teaching and research and have each department oversee both teaching and research. That’s how things are in other countries and other French institutions. And it fits the school’s thinking, doesn’t it?" (3)
Any hobbies? "I did a lot of sailing, alone and with a team. I prefer with a team." It’s easy to draw the parallel with research, also a matter of teamwork. "I was so passionate about it that I somewhat hesitated between a career as a researcher and as a navigator." In 2011, 2013 and 2014, Arezki Boudaoud convinced six to eight members of the RDP to take part in the sailing challenge of the CNRS. He was the skipper and he trained his teammates, half of whom were beginners. They were systematically outraced by experimented teams from Brittany and never made it to the top spots, but it was a great adventure. A passion he hopes he’ll be able to share with his daughter, born last year.
(1) In general, a researcher doesn’t teach or only gives lectures in Master’s degrees, on very specialized topics.
(2) Teva Vernoux, director of the RDP, has two deputies: Arezki Boudaoud and Gwyneth Ingram.
(3) At the ENS de Lyon, research labs report to the vice-president in charge of research, while the teaching departments report to the vice-president in charge of studies.
Arezki in a few dates1974 Birth in Algiers
1992 Algerian and French baccalaureate
1992 Admitted to “Ginette” preparatory class
1994 Admitted to the ENS Ulm in math-physics
1996 Physics aggregation
2001 Doctoral thesis
2001-2002 Postdoc at the MIT
Late 2002 lead researcher at the CNRS, in the statistical physics lab of the ENS Ulm
2009 Professor at the ENS de Lyon
2012 ERC Starting grant
2013 IUF junior
2016 CNRS Silver medal