Training the next generation of engineers is important

Stéphanie Lacour at Campus Biotech in Geneva - 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog CC-BY-SA

Stéphanie Lacour at Campus Biotech in Geneva - 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog CC-BY-SA

Stéphanie Lacour engineers soft electrodes that can be interfaced with the body’s nervous system. Committed to research and educating future engineers, she spearheaded and directs EPFL’s inter-school institute, Neuro-X. This year, she holds the Liliane Bettencourt annual chair of Technological Innovation at the Collège de France.

Stéphanie Lacour’s career in engineering is punctuated with pivotal milestones, always guided by the lucidity of her own interests, and ideas of combining biology and electronics. She discovered how to produce stretchable gold thin films during her first postdoc in 2002, at Princeton University, in a lab renowned for its advancements in flexible displays. Eager to deepen her understanding of the nervous system and explore how to design the “ideal electrode” for interfacing with the human body, she embarked on her second postdoc, which began in 2006, at the University of Cambridge. She joined EPFL in 2011 and was appointed full professor in 2016, and held the Bertarelli Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology. She now directs EPFL’s inter-school Neuro-X institute, promoting research and education at the intersection of technology and neuroscience. Today, she is giving her inaugural speech at the Collège de France as the Liliane Bettencourt chair for Technological Innovation.

“I am most comfortable at the interface between disciplines, thus have been drawn across engineering and neuroscience. This is how I project my own work as an electrical engineer as well as the mission of the Neuro-X institute,” says Lacour. “The convergence of our understanding of the nervous system with the advent of new technologies has created a unique opportunity. I believe it is timely to employ an engineering strategy to solving medical challenges and to teach the next generation of technologists this interdisciplinary approach.”

Thoughout, she has received numerous accolades: she was named “Top 35 Innovators under the age of 35” by the MIT Technology Review in 2006; was recepient of the 2011 ZONTA award; was selected to be a 2014 WEF young scientist and a 2015 WEF Young Global Leader.

Music, microelectronics and academia

But Lacour says she did not know – until her university years – that she would pursue engineering in academia. As a teenager, she actually wanted to pursue a career in music playing the flute. A professional music career was quickly sidestepped when her parents, a math teacher and a human resource specialist, convinced her that music was a difficult career path and that she could always continue it as a hobby.

So Lacour decided to study engineering in Lyon, at INSA, with the idea that she could play the flute on the side and eventually study acoustics in order to maintain a connect with music.

“During those first two years, however, I realized that acoustics was not really what I wanted to do. That’s when I discovered other topics in science and started moving towards electronics,” says Lacour. “As I specialized in electronics, I also realized that I was more driven by how you make devices and circuits, rather than circuit design or power electronics.”

It was during her 5th year at INSA that she focused on microfabrication. It was also at INSA that she realized that she wanted to pursue an academic career, both for its involvement in teaching, but also for the freedom of pursuing curiosity-driven ideas.

Stretchable gold electrodes and time in the United States

Lacour went on to do a PhD at INSA, studying skin hydration sensors. Her career was set to continue in France, but as serendipity would have it, she met Professor Sigurd Wagner of Princeton University at a conference. He invited her to visit his lab at Princeton University, and offered her a postdoc position. The lab was specialized in thin film electronics - displays were a hot topic at the time - and Lacour became immersed not only in an entirely new field of research, but also in an entirely new way of conducting research, driven by non-conventional ideas and curiosity.

It is at Princeton University that she made the breakthrough discovery about stretchable metal films and their applications in soft devices. “I was exploring how to design electrodes that could conform to objects of irregular curvature. The first idea was to deposit metal on a compliant polymer carrier. I started with gold, a ductile metal and silicone, an elastomer. To my surprise, the metal could be evaporated on the silicone, was electrically conductive, and could retain its conductivity when stretched! Many systematic experiments followed to reproduce, understand and use such stretchable metal,” tells Lacour.

Driven to connect these stretchable electrodes with biology, she decided to go to University of Cambridge in the UK for her next postdoc, this time guided by Professor James Fawcett, a neuroscientist specialized in the regeneration of axons after lesions of the nervous system. She received a University Research Fellowship from the Royal Society, allowing her to become and autonomous PI and start her own group. All the while, she continued to play the flute on the side. “A not-to-be-missed opportunity to play baroque music in the chapels of Cambridge colleges,” adds Lacour.

At EPFL since 2011, she continues to innovate and build an environment conducive to interdisciplinary research between electronics, materials and the life sciences, through her teaching and her research.

A stretchable gold brain implant developed in Lacour's laboratory. - 2024 EPFL - CC-BY-SA

The role of mentors and mentorship in general

Lacour expresses gratitude towards her supervisors: “I really had superb mentors. My PhD supervisor was supportive of my work and conference-going. Sigurd connected me with a lot of people, encouraged me to go to conferences and be curious about research domains that were not my initial training. Working in the US really opened my eyes about how one can conduct research. Through his guidance, I had the opportunity to give many talks on various projects, including the stretchable gold, and that’s how I met a professor at Columbia University who was similarly stretching neurons,” explains Lacour. “That’s how I got interested in neuroscience. At Cambridge, James taught me the importance of translational and clinical research, and offered his unique perspectives for understanding the nervous system. All my supervisors were genuinely caring about the training of their lab members, and connecting us with their networks. I still, today, leverage the network I made during my postdocs.”

“Training the next generation of engineers and thinkers is important to me,” concludes Lacour. “As a professor, we are reaching out to a large body of students, teaching bachelor and master courses, hoping to inspire them. More personalised mentoring in the lab also happens, as one-to-one discussions with doctoral and postdoctoral members take place over the years. Beside a supporting environment, such as the one we benefit from at EPFL, mentors are key, I think they are really the people who teach you the ropes of the job, and I hope to be as good as my mentors were with me.”

And yes, she still plays the flute.

Lacour holds one of the stretchable electrodes developed in her laboratory. - 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA
Collège de France Lecture Series

The series comprises eight lessons, a colloque, and the highly anticipated inaugural lecture on Thursday February 29th that will be streamed online at a 6pm CET. Kicking off the first lesson on Friday March 1st, with an essential overview of the nervous system from a technological vantage point, Lacour will explore the anatomy of neural connections and the scales at which technology can interface with biology. The curriculum is designed to demystify the nexus between technology and neuroscience, making it accessible not just to scientists and engineers but to anyone interested in the cutting-edge field of neurotechnology. The series not only aims to educate but also to amplify French-speaking research, with lectures freely available online and the inaugural lecture slated for publication.

Author: Hillary Sanctuary

Source: People

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