“You can count yourself lucky when you fail”

© Alain Herzog/2020 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/2020 EPFL

Philippe Renaud, an EPFL professor, has just won the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Electrophoresis Society for his exceptional contribution to the fields of dielectric cytometry and nanofluidics. We spoke with him about his career marked by teaching success and scientific innovation.

“Students line up to work with him,” says one of Professor Renaud’s PhD students. At EPFL’s Microsystems Laboratory, which he heads, praise for him abounds from both his students and colleagues. Thanks to his generous approach to knowledge sharing and his research excellence, Renaud, 63, has just won the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Electrophoresis Society. This prestigious award reflects his major discoveries in the areas of BioMEMs, microfluidics and sensors.

Guiding students 

For Renaud, the son of a Neuchâtel winemaker, an engineering career wasn’t necessarily in the cards. But he left the family vineyard to study physics and then specialize in microengineering. Now a professor at EPFL’s School of Engineering and cofounder of the NanoBioTech-Montreux conference, he takes pride in his role as a steward of the next generation – planning his lessons carefully and making time for his PhD students. “Once your career is over, nobody remembers the articles you’ve written. But everyone remembers a teacher who has shaped them,” says Renaud. His classes are designed to get students to reason problems out rather than memorize facts by heart. “He wants us to understand the nuts and bolts of how things work. When he doesn’t answer a question directly, it’s because there’s something we’re not seeing and he wants us to find the answer on our own,” says Joan Teixidor, a PhD student at Renaud’s lab.

Renaud prefers to advise his PhD students on what general direction to take – and let them handle it from there. “They often hit a wall about halfway through their thesis. And it’s at that moment – when they come to me and complain that nothing’s going to plan – when the research process truly begins,” he says. “As professors, we play a decisive role in getting students on the right track when they feel lost. You don’t need help if the path is clear.” Along the same lines, he believes that students “can count themselves lucky when they fail, because it’s a great opportunity to learn something.” He hit a wall himself during his thesis project in physics. “I no longer believed in what I was doing. I had to take a fresh perspective on my work,” he says.

“Potential beyond the laboratory”

Renaud wants to prepare his PhD students to not just lead successful careers, but to face life’s challenges in general. When selecting which students to supervise, he looks for highly motivated individuals and encourages them to be creative. “I always select students who show maturity, can work independently and have an entrepreneurial spirit. Because they’ll be out in the job market once they graduate, they need to be able to transition from the academic to the professional world,” he says. Teixidor adds: “He’s especially good at bringing out our strengths. He points out the things we do particularly well, which builds up our confidence.” Renaud encourages his students to create their own businesses and stresses that entrepreneurial goals mustn’t detract from the quality of their research or their ambitions – on the contrary. “Creating a startup forces you to think about what your research can be used for and find concrete applications,” says Renaud. Teixidor agrees: “Our findings need to have potential beyond the laboratory.” 

An innovative professor 

A firm believer in the benefits of cross-disciplinary work, Renaud has formed pioneering partnerships with biology and medical researchers in order to better leverage his know-how in physics and microengineering. “He’s a visionary and not someone who’s happy to sit in an ivory tower. That lets him take an innovative approach,” says Matin Gijs, a fellow EPFL professor. For example, Renaud and his research team developed the SU8 photosensitive resin, which was initially intended for watchmaking but is now used widely in microfluidics research. In the 2000s, Renaud became the first scientist to analyze cells using electrical signals – a method that was adopted several years later by other researchers. “We’ve been able to come up with the right innovation at the right time,” he says. 

Advising startups

Renaud couldn’t imagine a career for himself other than one devoted to science. When he retires, he plans to take a more active role in supporting startups: “I’ve held back until now because of possible conflicts of interest,” he says. His former students have founded around a dozen businesses, including Mimotec, a watch parts maker based in the Canton of Valais, and Aleva Neurotherapeutics, a provider of advanced electrodes for deep brain stimulation. Renaud attributes the broad range of spin-offs to his multidisciplinary approach, although his colleagues might say it’s due to his boundless creativity.