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UMI Riverside

Mastering the Molecule in California

Guy Bertrand enjoys the best of both worlds–old and new. This CNRS senior research director is also professor of chemistry at the University of California, Riverside, where he runs a joint laboratory that is re-defining the frontiers of molecular science.

International cooperation is an extraordinary bonus for science,” says Guy Bertrand, a distinguished French chemist and member of France's prestigious Academy of Sciences. “The results of academic research are a gift to humanity, and where they are accomplished is of no importance.”

Bertrand is speaking from his Joint Research Chemistry Laboratory, a unit set up five years ago by CNRS and the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and based on the sprawling, leafy campus at Riverside,1 in the heart of Inland Southern California. “There is great conviviality on the campus here, and an impressive team spirit among all the staff,” he says. “The success of one researcher is seen as a success for everyone.”

Last fall, a US headline proclaimed, “Interstellar Molecule Tamed in the Lab,” announcing how Bertrand's lab team had recreated a compound so unstable that no one had believed it could exist outside its natural habitat of outer space. Introducing Cyclopropenylidene carbene, a molecule with a star-studded future in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

The mission of the joint lab is to prepare, in laboratory conditions, enduring molecules which were hitherto considered unstable–that is, incapable of existing beyond a brief moment, at best. This “chemistry of the impossible,” as it has often been dubbed, involves stabilizing organic species using the specific properties of main group elements, notably phosphorous, silicon, and boron. It's a development that shows great promise for exciting innovations in medicine as well as in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and manufacturing industries–an important factor in attracting private sponsorship.

The venture began in October 2001, after Bertrand was offered the post of professor at UCR, where the chemistry department was in the throes of a significant expansion. Up until then, he had been associated with CNRS in France for more than 25 years, most recently heading the Laboratory of Fundamental and Applied Heteroatom Chemistry at the University of Toulouse. “I was 49 and tempted by a new career path, particularly one within the American system,” recalls Bertrand.

 

California

Scientists at UCR use state-of-the-art equipment in their molecular research.


 

UCR was quick to take up a CNRS proposition of opening a joint international unit under Bertrand's management, a role he began simultaneously alongside his professorship. In this first-ever partnership between CNRS and a US university, the lab was offered a home within UCR's brand new, state-of-the-art Chemical Sciences building. A courtyard outside Bertrand's office was given the name “Place du CNRS.”

Riverside provided a start-up investment of $1 million, with CNRS providing–and paying the salaries of–the two permanent researchers onboard at the time. Within their first year of activity, Bertrand's team achieved the stabilization of a diradical, a molecule that can be used to create organic magnets. Bertrand now oversees a staff of four permanent researchers, who stay at Riverside for an average of four years, and one crystallographer, all from CNRS. The major slice of the lab's yearly operating budget, excluding CNRS salaries and that of Bertrand, is provided by UCR's donation. US government and private sponsorship make up the rest, major donors being the US National Institutes of Health, French chemical firm Rhodia and the National Science Foundation. “There is a lot of stress over financing,” Bertrand admits. “It's as if we could lose everything from one day to the next. Either we succeed and get everything or we don't and we lose it all!”

The lab also hosts eight postdoctoral researchers who stay for up to two years– including nationals from France, Canada, Japan, Germany, Pakistan, and New Zealand–and ten PhD students. “It's an extraordinary thing to see this culturally diverse team, here in California, conversing in French during both their professional and social exchanges,” observes Bertrand. 

In 2003, eminent French chemist François Mathey, also a member of France's Academy of Sciences, joined Riverside's teaching staff. He created a research unit in phosphorous chemistry, working in tandem with Bertrand's team. Through a cooperation agreement with China's Zhengzhou University, he established a third international pole of joint research. Bertrand delights in the prospect of his lab participating in research across three continents. “I don't regret anything about my move here; it has been a fabulous experience. My advice to anyone contemplating a move into international scientific cooperation is categorical: Don't hesitate!”

 

Graham Tearse

Notes :

1. View web site

Contacts :

Guy Bertrand
UCR, Riverside.
gbertran@mail.ucr.edu


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