“Above all, the goal is to do our best.”

Eva Baur © 2023 Alain Herzog

Eva Baur © 2023 Alain Herzog

Eva Baur took home first place and the audience award at the EPFL final of the My Thesis in 180 Seconds (MT180) competition for her captivating presentation on elastomers – complete with pictures of mussels. She’ll be one of three scientists representing EPFL in the MT180 Swiss finals.

The key to designing robotic arms and prosthetic hands that are soft, flexible, and sturdy may lie inthe secret of byssus – the incredibly strong elastic filaments that mussels use to attach themselves to rocks. The 600 people who attended EPFL’s MT180 finals will now have a new appreciation for byssus thanks to Baur, who won first place and the audience award. Originally from Belgium, Baur is now studying byssus and its promising applications for her PhD at EPFL’s Soft Materials Laboratory. Baur set the tone for her presentation by embracing a Belgian cliché and displaying an image of moules-frites, the country’s national dish. The audience was hooked. On June 29, she’ll represent EPFL at the Swiss finals at the University of Lausanne along with two EPFL colleagues: Anita Bodac from the Molecular Life Sciences Laboratory and Gaétan Raynaud from the Unsteady Flow Diagnostics Laboratory.

Baur admits she’s never actually put on her waders and gone out at low tide to test the strength of byssus in real-world conditions. Instead, she delved into the literature and put on her lab gloves in order to find the right chemical formulas for recreating the million-year-old elastomer in a lab for the first time. Baur is the first scientist under the supervision of Esther Amstad to study this naturally occurring elastomer. “Other scientists at the lab are working on hydrogels. These are similar materials, but they swell in water, which is useful in medicine,” she explains. As Baur detailed in her excellent presentation, she’s interested in studying byssus for its shear-thinning properties, or the ability to become less viscous at higher speeds. She’s now testing different formulas to make byssus compounds more or less resistant. For instance, elastomer inks made from byssus could be used for 3D printing and to create more flexible robotic arms and prosthetic hands.

It's amazing to see what materials you can come up with and what your colleagues are making. They’re in the same field so they can appreciate the beauty that other people wouldn’t notice.

Eva Baur

A welcoming work environment

Byssus and its design secrets were the last things on Baur’s mind before she came to EPFL. She was interested in mechanics and chemistry in high school, and attended EPFL’s open house in 2015, but was unsure of what she wanted to study. Then someone advised her to study materials science, which is “smack dab at the intersection of those two fields.” She hasn’t looked back since. Still, Baur had no intention of pursuing a PhD until a few months before her Master’s exams. “I was a bit scared,” she admits. But sometimes an exciting topic and a positive work environment can change everything. Baur first came to the Soft Materials Lab by chance, for an internship. She liked the lab’s “relaxed, friendly atmosphere that was nevertheless very productive.” Unable to leave Switzerland during the pandemic, Baur continued on the lab for her Master’s research. “A PhD thesis was the logical next step,” she explains. After poring over the existing literature on byssus, she was stunned by how little of the field of this biomimetic materials had been explored. “This lack of research allowed me to choose in which area I was going to focus my work, but I also have to stay very focused so I don’t spread myself too thin.” She often makes short videos for colleagues about the materials she’s produced. “It's amazing to see what you can come up with and what your colleagues are making. They’re in the same field so they can appreciate the beauty that other people wouldn’t notice.” Baur’s next challenge will be to combine inks with different properties in order to print 3D structures of all sizes.

Supported by her family, who travelled to Switzerland for EPFL’s MT180 finals, Baur appreciated the opportunity to practice with a colleague who was also selected. “It’s great to be able to give and receive feedback on your slides and text,” she says. In terms of next steps, the bar is high. The EPFL winner from 2022, Sophie Rivara, went on to win the Swiss finals and came in second in the international competition. Is Baur feeling the pressure? Not really. Sure, being on stage is stressful, but people have told her it’s a friendly, healthy competition. “People just want to do their best while also encouraging each other.” Baur took a short, well-deserved break and then began preparing for the Swiss finals. “I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself, but I'm thrilled to represent EPFL because this is where I obtained all my degrees.”

The participant who obtained third place in the EPFL final, Armand Kurum, from the Laboratory of Biomaterials for Immunoengineering, will not be able to participate in the Swiss final on June 29. It is therefore the participant in 4th place, Gaétan Raynaud, who is selected to represent EPFL.

Gaétan Raynaud presentation

My thesis in 180 seconds Swiss final

The Swiss final will take place on June 29 at 6:30 PM on the UNIL campus. The audience is invited to attend this event and vote for his or her favorite candidate.

Note that this event will be in French.


Registration required