© E. Perrin/CNRS Photothèque
Brilliant is not too strong a word to qualify the career of Mihail Barboiu, though he himself values modesty. Now forty, this Romanian chemist heads a team dedicated to adaptive supramolecular nanosystems at IEM1
in Montpellier. This entails studying the properties of biological membranes, numerous varieties of which exist in nature that have an interesting ability to let certain molecules pass through them while forming a barrier against others.
Barboiu thus develops novel materials and systems with innovative properties and a range of applications, as proven by the number of patents that have been filed. For example, his team has developed a membrane that is ten times more conductive than those currently used in fuel cells. Two patents have been filed for materials that allow the sequestration of CO2
, and others in the healthcare industry. These finds are somewhat fortuitous, as is often the case for major scientific discoveries: “Conductive polymers were found following a manipulation error, in the same way that Fleming discovered penicillin by neglecting his biological cultures during a summer break”, recalls Barboiu, whose destiny, on the other hand, owes nothing to chance.
At school, in his hometown of Pascani in Northern Romania, the young Barboiu was already fascinated by science. He participated in the Chemistry Olympiad and represented his country at an international level on two occasions. Soon after, he entered the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, where he qualified as an engineer in organic chemistry. During his studies, his professor, Constantin Luca, allocated him some lab space where he could let his imagination run free–and this earned him his first publication at the age of 23. Barboiu followed it with a thesis on “The use of hybrid materials for molecular recognition,” while at the same time working at a Bucharest research center. “Within three years, I was heading my own research team,” he distinctly remembers. A collaboration was then initiated with Montpellier's LMPM,2
so that his doctorate was eventually completed under dual supervision. In 1999, already looking for a postdoctoral position, Barboiu was given an exceptional opportunity: A lectureship at one of the world's most elite scholarly institutions, the Collège de France, carried out in the Strasbourg laboratory headed by the eminent Professor Jean-Marie Lehn, Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry in 1987. The team had managed to artificially reproduce the coiling-uncoiling motions of natural proteins. “It was a dream come true, as I was a great admirer of Jean-Marie Lehn! Working in a lab headed by a Nobel laureate was the most incredible opportunity in the world for a young scientist.”
Two years later, Barboiu joined CNRS to work at the IEM in Montpellier. He decorated his new office with photographs of the teachers who had inspired him, such as Constantin Luca, Louis Cot, and Jean-Marie Lehn. His talent was further acknowledged in 2004 when he won the European Research Young Investigator Prize for his project on the evolution of dynamic systems at the interface between chemistry, biology, and physics. That same year, he was appointed senior researcher and focused his work on biological membranes. Undoubtedly, this scientist is following the paths trodden by his mentors.
1. Institut européen des membranes (CNRS / École nationale supérieure de chimie Montpellier / Université Montpellier-II).
2. Laboratoire des matériaux et procédés membranaires (CNRS / Université Montpellier-II), which later became the IEM.