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Marie-Louise Saboungi

French at heart


marie louise

© T. Cacciaguerra

Confirmed Francophile Marie-Louise Saboungi is the atypical, adventurous, and dedicated director of the Center for Research on Divided Matter (CRMD)1 in Orléans. She was born in
Lebanon in 1948 where her impressive scientific career had its foundation after an outstanding high-school performance: she finished first in mathematics in the country. After studying physics in Beirut, she arrived in France in 1969, an experience that is engraved in her memory. “I arrived in the midst of a cultural revolution, but I could not bring myself to address a single professor with the familiar tu.” She completed her doctorate on the statistical thermodynamics of molten salts in record time. A postdoctoral appointment in Chicago was the second turning-point in her life, and also her second culture-shock. “It was the seventies and America was in turmoil with the scandal of Nixon's resignation, the aftermath of the Vietnam war...” Saboungi soon adjusted and especially valued the wealth of social, cultural, and intellectual activity she found at the Argonne National Laboratory. “This is what accounts for the richness of American research,” she says; “the coming together of scientists from every field, the effervescence of ideas.” There, she encountered a pioneer in the field of molecular dynamics simulations, the Indian-born Cambridge-educated Aneesur Rahman.2

She went on to refine her research into porous matter and lithium-based metal alloys. “But I was homesick for France,” she remembers. “I was the only woman with the rank of Senior Scientist in the Materials Science Division, but I never felt that I was a minority. No doubt that derived from my French background.” In 1981, Saboungi was awarded a three-month grant to work in Grenoble: “I thought of it as a test, to see whether I still felt at home in France. I was already thinking about coming back.” But it was not until 1999 that she joined the Center for Research on Materials at High Temperature in Orléans3 as a visiting scientist.4 “I was delighted,” she recalls. “I had joined a laboratory where they were experimenting with synchrotron radiation using levitation.5 It was a small research center, but full of inventive thinking.” During this visit, she was invited to become Director of CRMD, and professor of physics at the University of Orléans. For her, “combining administration, teaching, and research is a real challenge,” as is the recreation of the “melting-pot” atmosphere which she had so much enjoyed in the US. Saboungi is committed to recreating this diversity: joint thesis directors from Canada, postdocs from Germany, Japan, China, India, “and even Corsica,” she adds. A joke that only a true French person can appreciate.


Camille Lamotte


Notes :

1. Centre de recherches sur la matière divisée (CNRS / Université d'Orléans joint lab). View web site
2. The prize of the American Physical Society was named after Professor Rahman.
3. Centre de recherches sur les matériaux à haute temperature (CNRS lab).
4.These appointments are intended for foreign researchers and last for a maximum of three years.
5. A suspended metal sphere is heated by a laser beam until it becomes liquid, enabling measurement of all the dynamic properties of its structure without pollution by a container.

Contacts :

Marie-Louise Saboungi
Centre de recherche sur la matière divisée, Orléans.


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