In brief

Zeitgeist

Soya, a male contraceptive?

A daily intake of soya could decrease male fertility. This is what was suggested by a recent study carried out by Jorge Chavarro of the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge (US). While the normal concentration of spermatozoids in men varies from 80 to 120 million per millilitre, results show that this can fall to 41 million units among men who eat large amounts of soya.

This is particularly troubling as its vegetable origin and high protein content make soya a popular food worldwide. A daily intake of a glass of soya milk or a dose of 115 grams of tofu already reduces the number of spermatozoids. However, there is one reservation: the study was carried out on 99 cases and researchers admit that the test randomisation must be increased to improve the clinical significance of the results.


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The increasingly flexible brain

La perte d'un sens favorise le developpement des quatre autres.

The loss of one sense encourages the development of the four others. This has now been demonstrated convincingly by a team at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (US), headed by Avaro Pascual-Leone. During five days volunteers were blindfolded and asked to carry out exercises designed to stimulate the sense of touch. When their brains were then tested using an MRI, an area of the visual cortex was shown to have been activated as if, being under-used, this area was brought in to help the subjects when they had to rely on touch. About 24 hours after the blindfolds came off, the participants lost this aptitude. "Previously, scientists had always believed that the brain was organised into distinct and highly specialised systems," said Alvaro Pascual-Leone. "But our study shows that the human brain has the ability to reorganise itself.

In addition, the rapid reversibility of the process suggests that it is not based on the creation of new nervous connections but on the activation of previously inhibited zones."


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The self-medication of plants

Do plants have the ability to selfmedicate?

The study carried out by Thomas Karl at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado (USA) would seem to suggest that they do.

By analysing the organic compounds that influence the growth of walnut trees, sensors detected the presence of methyl salicylate. This is a volatile form of salicylic acid present in the composition of aspirins and is known for its analgesic and antipyretic properties.

Surprisingly, this substance seemed to be produced by the plant itself and showed peaks of concentration during cold nights or conditions of relative drought.

From this, there is just one step to the conclusion that the plant produces methyl salicylate when in danger as a way to boost its response and warn its neighbours - and the researcher made this step. He believes that this volatile substance makes it possible to send a stress signal further and more quickly. The theory has yet to be substantiated, but the researcher believes that farmers will soon be able to use detection of this compound as an early signal of plant infection, enabling a prompt response.

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MenAfriVac

This is the name of the new vaccine that is hoped will protect African populations against meningitis. Caused by the group A meningococcus Neisseria meningitidis, this infection still causes thousands of deaths in an area that stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia. Ongoing clinical trials suggest that in infants aged under two years MenAfrVac produces a level of antibodies 20 times higher than the polyosidic vaccine administered to date.

Its price also remains affordable - 0.40 dollars a dose - and the protection it provides lasts longer. Thanks to the $55 million invested by the GAVI Alliance public-private consortium, 270 million people, from newborns to young adults, will benefit from this progress.

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, considers that in the future countries will not only be able to respond to emergency situations but also eliminate the threat of epidemic.

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Biocidic paints

When large concentrations of pesticides are found in rivers, farmers are often the first to be accused. But the results of the Urbic project, headed by the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Testing and Research (CH), have called this notion into question.

On-site and modelling tests both confirm that the source of a significant share of these pesticides is the coatings used for building facades in urban areas. To stop moss from forming, manufacturers inject algicides and fungicides into the paint that can amount to as much as 300 tonnes a year in Switzerland alone.

Although the biocide concentrations are reduced with rain, certain compounds such as cybutryne continue to have a toxic action on marine organisms even at concentrations of no more than a few nanograms per litre. Project leaders are now working on proposals designed to reduce the impact of these biocides, notably through a more suitable architecture and developing substances that are just as effective but more environmentally-friendly.

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Econology

Using the economic argument to advocate ecology. That is the strategy of a surprising study carried out by the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (FR), the National Centre for Scientific Research (FR) and the Helmholtz- Zentrum fur Umweltforschung (DE).

On the basis of the 2005 figures, taken principally from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), scientists have evaluated €153 billion as the worldwide commercial value of pollination.

If pollen-gatherers were to disappear completely, it would then be necessary to add to this amount the losses caused by decreased consumption owing to higher prices, themselves a result of global production decrease.

The calculation hypotheses presented in this study, based mainly on coefficients linked to supply and demand, result in an estimation of these losses at between €190 and €310 billion.

These forecasts are certainly approximate because a complete absence of pollination is unlikely.

The authors stress that the study only quantifies the damage for human food and not the financial repercussions on food for livestock or on biodiversity.

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Artificial but true!

What is the point of making an artificial tree? The answer comes from Abraham Stroock of Cornell University (US) whose work has just been published in the journal Nature. Linked by a single channel that serves as a trunk, two circles of pHEMA hydrogel play the role of leaves that are crossed by 80 parallel microchannels to imitate the plant's vascular system.

And it works! The structure breathes by capillarity, like all plants. Just as a tree is able to irrigate even its highest branches, this prototype is able to pump water against high mechanical resistances or from partially dried sources.

There are many applications since the phenomenon is purely mechanical and requires no energy supply. Buildings equipped with such a structure would benefit, for example, from a better distribution of heat flows.

Researchers also envisage using their system for soil improvement as the transpiration would aid the evacuation of contaminating fluids.

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An adhesive foot

Walls, ceilings... no surface is off-limits to the gecko, which can walk upside down if necessary.

It was in 2002 that scientists solved the mystery: it seems that the feet of these lizards are covered in countless hairs that multiply its contact area and thus provide a major adhesive strength.

Since then several research groups have sought to reproduce an equivalent structure, but on each occasion dust has accumulated on the synthetic surfaces tested and consequently loses its adhesion.

A new structure developed by Ronald Fearing and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley Biomimetic Millisystems Lab (US) seems to have avoided this problem by grafting onto the initial support polymer microfibres of sufficient rigidity to have a self-cleaning power.

When it first crosses a dirty surface the dust sticks to a microscopic brush. But thanks to the rigidity of its hairs, a few more contacts are all it takes for the particles to again adhere to the original surface. This new kind of perfectly adhesive structure could soon give rise to emergency aid robots able to mount any facade.


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European news

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A virus gets a virus

Researchers at Marseilles University's CNRS research unit on emerging infectious and tropical diseases (FR) had no idea of the fuss that would be caused by a tiny fragment of nucleic acid isolated within the giant mamavirus. The scientists first took it for a simple ‘satellite' - a nucleic acid fragment associated with many viruses - and fittingly named it Sputnik. But on closer inspection Sputnik was revealed to be a virophage virus that infects the mamavirus in order to reproduce, which affects its host's ability to proliferate.

An analysis of the Sputnik genome showed that it possessed not only mamavirus genes but also virus genes belonging to other taxons (taxonomic categories) of life. This virophage could therefore transmit genetic material from one virus to another, thereby confusing present thinking whereby a particular type of virus is peculiar to each area of life. The researchers also detected particles of the virophage within an empty mamavirus capsid. This suggests that the latter can genuinely fall ill and be destroyed - indicating that a virus can die and therefore qualify as a living creature. Does this mean a total review of the traditional biological classification is in order?

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… and green viruses

A team from the Marche Polytechnic University (IT) caused a sensation when it published in Nature the results of research showing the role of viruses within the oceanic carbon cycle. It appears that viruses abound within the sedimentary deposits found on the seabed. After examining a series of samples taken at different depths, the researchers concluded that one gram of sediment contains on average about one billion viruses.

This army of viruses sets about contaminating the underwater bacterial population and, in so doing, helps increase the latter's larder. This is because while a complete bacteria serves as food only for larger organisms, a bacteria infected by a virus explodes and the remains can then be ingested by other bacteria. This system of comultiplication also has the advantage of considerably increasing the amount of carbon stored by the oceans. The results of this study carried out by the HERMES European project will certainly help refine climate forecasting models.

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Neuron culture

A team of researchers from the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (BE) has developed a system that enables cortical neurons to be generated from embryonic stem cells. This corticogenesis occurs in vitro and makes it possible to quite easily and spontaneously reproduce the complexity of the neuron network specific to the cerebral cortex. To test the viability of this approach, the neurons produced in this way were transplanted into the brains of mice. And it works! These neurons created in vitro were connected to the cortical network of the laboratory mice, thereby completing the complex neuronal circuit that is characteristic of this area of the brain. These results suggest that we could soon have access to an unlimited source of cortical neurons for the purposes of pharmaceutical tests or to model neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's, epilepsy or schizophrenia. In the longer term, the technique could even be used to create tissue for grafting onto damaged areas of the cortex.

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Combating arsenic…

As populations expanded during the 20th century, so did the use of groundwater as a source of drinking water. In South-East Asia, where deep groundwater contains arsenic in the natural state, the increased use of this water resource has caused serious public health problems. Although decontamination solutions exist, they are too expensive and are limited to small quantities of water. Research carried out by Queens University Belfast (IE) as part of the European project TiPOT recently developed a new method for combating this problem. The approach, tested at a pilot plant in Kasimpoure, near Calcutta (India), involves pumping water from the contaminated groundwater before reinjecting it into the aquifer. Upon contact with the atmosphere, the water is enriched with oxygen, resulting in an initial reduction in the arsenic level. At higher oxygen concentrations, iron, manganese and underground micro-organisms subsequently help limit the poison's concentration to a harmless level.

This economic, ecological and easily transferable solution is proving an attractive option with six stations of this kind currently being built.


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…in a cold zone

A team from the department of molecular and structural biology at University College London (UK) has discovered a new bacterium that uses arsenic as an energy source in relatively cold environments. The bacteria, which was discovered at the heavily arsenic-polluted Giant Mine in north-west Canada, is able to act at temperatures of between 4°C and 20°C and lives in communities in the form of bacterial biofilms.

The researchers hope to benefit from this lover of extremes to develop a new bioremediation strategy aimed at depolluting groundwater and contaminated soils in the world's cold regions.

They also envisage isolating the enzyme used by this bacterial layer for the purposes of developing a biosensor that is able to identify arsenic pollution.

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More than a side effect

Siramesine, an ineffective drug against anxiety, could be useful in combating cancer. Development of this molecule was halted in 2002 following results obtained during clinical trials.

Subsequently, a team from the Danish Cancer Institute (DK) showed that siramesine also has another effect: an ability to inhibit, in vitro, the growth of cancer cells and, in vivo, impede the growth of tumours in mice.

A more in-depth study carried out by researchers at Helsinki University (FI) recently revealed the ‘strategy' used by the molecule in combating the spread of cancer cells. Unlike traditional anti-cancer compounds that target membrane proteins, siramesine attaches itself to phosphatic acid, a phospholipid known to play an important role in the cell mechanisms that regulate cell deaths. As previous clinical trials had shown siramesine to be harmless, if future tests prove convincing the molecule could soon be available commercially.

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Science at your fingertips

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An infectious Exhibition

"Epidemics are a consequence of humans," says Anne Stephan, general manager of the Epidemik exhibition in the Paris science museum, Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie. To enable exhibition visitors to discover more about this worrying phenomenon, they are first invited to immerse themselves in a series of illustrations and films (archive images, first-hand accounts) detailing the development and real-life experience of epidemics from a societal standpoint. The exhibition features five different scenarios: the major crises in the history of epidemics (from prehistory to the early 20th century); the organisation of epidemic control; epidemics and racism; the end of optimism (1940-1990); and the possibility of a fourth crisis in the form of microbial storms caused by such factors as globalisation, changing life styles and global warming.

Can we escape this impending threat? It all depends... not only on health policy, but also on individual and collective behaviour. The second phase of the exhibition is given over to a novel ‘test' in the form of a giant interactive game (up to 100 participants). Five ‘real-life' simulations are projected onto an immense screen: a bioterrorist attack of pneumonic plague in the New York metro system; a chikungunya epidemic in Nice; pandemic influenza in Singapore; AIDS in Paris-Rio-Moscow and malaria in Bamako... A visual and audio composition accompanies the evolution of the scenarios on the screen. At the same time, each player is followed by his or her ‘aura' - a circle of light on the ground that accompanies their movements and gauges their health status in real time.

Depending on the players' chosen path and encounters, they may or may not avoid infection, they discover treatments and prevention systems, have contacts with others (giving them the ability to infect their contacts) and can make good or bad choices.

To save his or her life (players have three lives), a player has to manipulate a number of virtual objects (such as a protective mask or drug), find out information, discover effective therapies and take other action.

This video game is not meant to stop there. The results of each round are recorded for a period of 11 months. According to Anne Stephan, "it may be possible for epidemiologists or other researchers to use these data for surveys or statistics, and the data could give a clearer indication of possible human behaviour in the event of an epidemic." Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, Paris, until 16 August 2009.

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Science hits the road

The new Extra database contains vital information for institutions involved in science communication that are interested in renting, hiring, buying, selling, lending or loaning science exhibitions, as well as collections, hands-on, specimens, objects, models, exhibits, images, films, audio and science shows. Extra brings together four natural science museums, together with the European Network for Science Centres and Museums (ECSITE) and the e-CASTEX network (electronic Centralised Access to Scientific Touring Exhibitions). Extra aims to encourage scientific exhibitions to go on tour to make them accessible to a much larger audience and recoup the investment, as the production of attractive exhibitions requires a lot of money, time and skill. A further objective is to assist travelling exhibition organisers to quickly gather as much information as possible. The database provides users with a dossier on each item that is clearly linked to a profile of the institution that provides it, with a calendar showing its availability.

Photos, videos and documents, as well as transport and packaging recommendations accompany each item, together with all the information needed to facilitate the process of renting or loaning an exhibition. In addition, anyone wishing to show a particular aspect of science in different sorts of projects can click onto the e-CASTEX network's Guidelines for Touring Exhibitions in Europe (250 pages), which summarises all the main points of interest.

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Flying labs

Many of us have only hazy notions about DNA, genes and genomes, the differences between molecules and cells and the functioning and role of all these elements. Biologist Marc van Mil, Education Officer at the Cancer Genomics Centre of the Medical University of Utrecht (NL), wishes to clarify these concepts for pupils in upper secondary education (aged 16 to 18). He has developed the DNA lab concept, a ‘portable' laboratory presenting the latest developments in genomics. Five labs focus on issues which teachers can use to create bridges between chemistry and biology: biofuel production, agriculture, the use of bioinformatics for criminal investigation and research into Alzheimer's disease and cancer. The travelling lab approach does not confine itself to scientific advances alone, but also examines the societal role that science plays in health, the environment and nutrition.

Teachers interested in this initiative can see a description of the labs on the website and sign up. Two university students will visit them to discuss a meeting date and practicalities, such as class work preparation for the visit.

The organisers ask teachers to hold a special lesson prior to the DNA lab visit and another one following it to discuss and evaluate the procedure. The young university students participating in the project are enthusiastic and see it as an excellent way to learn about science communication.

The material is available in Dutch and the experiment is being conducted in the Netherlands and in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. In the space of a year, DNA labs have been presented to a total of 25 000 pupils in 275 schools. The organisers would like to export the concept to other European countries.


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Life under water

AquaRing (Accessible and Qualified Use of Available Digital Resources for the Aquatic World In National Gatherings) is a European pilot project coordinated by the Aquarium of Genoa (IT) aimed at raising public awareness of the importance of conservation, management and the responsible use of all aquatic environments, through an in-depth knowledge of animal species and their habitats.

To do this it has set up a multilingual semantic portal for pooling digital content on the aquatic world. There are different points of access to suit the various user profiles: not only the general public, students and teachers and researchers, but also managers and staff of aquariums, natural history museums and science centres, journalists and tour operators. Italy, Belgium, France, Lithuania, Spain and the Netherlands are the partners in this initiative co-funded by the European Union under the multiannual Community programme eContentplus to make digital content in Europe more accessible, usable and exploitable.

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Deep sea adventure

Adventure In November 2008, an international team of researchers headed by scientists from the University of Delaware (US) explored the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Their objective was to discover more about organisms living in extreme conditions (such as very hot water, total darkness or a toxic environment). The scientists focused their research on viruses, which have tended to be neglected in favour of bacteria. They wanted to involve schools in their adventure. Some 200 classes throughout the United States, as well as countries as far afield as Iran, Mexico, New Zealand, Austria, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan, have been lucky enough to follow the scientists' work on a daily basis through direct contact with them in real time. The first edition of this highly unusual educational experiment in 2004 was met with resounding success.

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Understanding the nanoworld

The subject of nanoparticles is on everyone's lips at the moment.

These objects invisible to the naked eye often exhibit strange behaviour and are already present in countless new materials, therapies and industrial processes.

Now they can be explored thanks to a new bilingual DVD published in English and French by the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), entitled Nanosciences, Nanotechnologies.

This multimedia DVD includes 18 films (run time: 160 minutes) in which renowned scientists - including Nobel Prize winners Jean-Marie Lehn (Chemistry) and Albert Fert (Physics) - take viewers on a guided tour of five lead-in topics: what is the nanoworld; tools for observation and fabrication; molecules and nanomachines; new electronics and biology; and nanolaboratories.

The DVD also explores the relationship between quantum physics and nanoobjects, new microscopes that allow us to see and even manipulate atoms, and DNA chips that contain all 25 000 human genes on a simple glass slide measuring a few square centimetres... The DVD, aimed at a non-specialist audience, offers various interactive features and includes datasheets with timelines, examples of nanoobjects and links to online texts and other sites. This almost encyclopaedic DVD can be ordered from videotheque.cnrs.fr at the all-inclusive price of €20 for private use and €40 for organisations.


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A virtual approach to nature

Key to Nature focuses specifically on biodiversity and its target audience is mainly schoolchildren and students. This recent project, bringing together 14 partners from 11 countries, including leading centres in biology, pedagogy, education and information technology, is funded under the European Commission's eContentplus programme. The aim is to open people's eyes to the organisms around them using identification tools - of which there are more than a thousand to date. These groups of organisms (including mosses, lichens, fungi, vertebrates and invertebrates) reveal the state of an ecosystem, including its possible degree of pollution. As not all schools have access to computer equipment, the e-tools offered are also produced in other forms, such as CD-ROM and printed documents.

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Research under the microscope

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Is scientific research operating in the interests of society?

The ‘social pertinence' of research is one of the most written about aspects of science policy. In the October 2007 issue of the journal Science and Public Policy, Paul Nightingale and Alister Scott, two researchers at the SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex (UK) - tackle the subject in a way that is original, refreshing and convincing.(1) They very subtly and intelligently show how the principles and characteristics that largely determine the effectiveness of scientific research (importance awarded to quality and ‘excellence', evaluation by peer review, autonomy and academic freedom, disciplinary organisation, etc.) are precisely those factors at the root of the system's weaknesses and shortcomings: conservatism and concentration on matters of sometimes limited interest, lack of openness to new ideas and young researchers, and difficulty in taking the needs of society into account when setting funding priorities.

Though defending the principles and characteristics in question, they nonetheless recommend adopting a critical view in the interest of amending or supplementing where necessary. Being neither extremist nor doctrinaire, these views will no doubt be criticised by the hardliners on both sides: on one hand, the fundamentalists of science who defend the research mechanisms unconditionally even in cases where the means of functioning contradicts the end itself; on the other hand, the zealots of society who would be prepared to sacrifice those very qualities that make it possible for science to have a positive impact on economic and social progress.

One could be tempted to see in this indirect proof that the opinions in question are correct. In addition to the interest of the ideas it contains, this article has the additional merit of being quite readable, in particular written in a style that is relatively free of jargon.


Michel André

  1. Peer review and the relevance gap: ten suggestions for policy-makers, Nightingale, Paul; Scott, Alister; Science and Public Policy, Volume 34, Issue 8, October 2007, pp. 543-553.

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Teaching corner

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The Earth sucked into a black hole?

When it was launched in 2008, the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was immediately the subject of heated debate. Some media critics even posited a doomsday scenario. Some feared that the machine might produce mini-black holes that could swallow up the Earth or something equally catastrophic. Are the scientists at CERN playing sorcerer's apprentices? Of course not. As far back as 2003, the independent scientists in the LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG) were already studying the likelihood of hazardous objects forming, well ahead of these alarmist prophesies.

A black hole forms when a star dies, but this can only happen if the star's initial mass is 30 times greater than the sun's. When the star collapses on itself at the end of its life, it concentrates an enormous amount of matter in a very small space, exerting a colossal pull on any nearby object. So it is simply not possible for the LHC to create a proper black hole. Speculations about microscopic black holes at the LHC refer to particles produced in the collision of pairs of protons, each of which has an energy comparable to that of a mosquito in flight. In this respect, the phenomenon could be compared to a microscopic black hole. Is it really possible for such microscopic black holes to be produced at the LHC?

According to the well-established properties of gravity, described by Einstein's theory of relativity, the answer is no. In line with other speculative theories, the answer is yes, although they predict that these particles would disintegrate immediately. So, mini-black holes would have no time to start accreting matter and cause macroscopic effects.

Other anomalies are feared: peculiar hypothetical particles of ‘strange matter' called ‘strangelets', ‘vacuum bubbles', a sort of new configuration of the universe in which humans could not exist, or else magnetic monopoles, which could cause protons to decay. However, LSAG experts have dismissed all these fears, either because experiments have proven them to be unfounded, or because the LHC does not fulfil the theoretical conditions for their formation. The universe is constantly being bombarded with cosmic rays and as a whole it conducts more than 10 thousand billion LHC-like experiments per second - and yet the planet still exists.


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Young researchers

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Nanoscience for two

Alberto und Vika
Alberto and Vika

It's a Wednesday evening in Paris and, sitting down to a bowl of pasta, I ask: "Vika, can we keep working on that article after supper?" It's a typical scene in the home of many young scientist couples. I was born in Italy and studied in both my homeland and France.

Vika is from central Russia.

Our paths crossed midway, in Germany, when we were both working on the same research project. Although we continued working at our separate jobs after we met, in the end we managed to live and work together in France.

As we are both foreigners, the common language we use to communicate is English, as is the case with many of our scientist friends. And, like most young scientists, we are asked to be mobile during our early years of research. Although this does enable us to experience a variety of working environments and to construct a personal culture with all the different snippets of experience we gather, moving around so much also causes serious organisational difficulties in a person's life. In our case, though, it was this very mobility that enabled us to meet and start a life together.

Our research areas overlap quite a bit: we both work in nanoscience, albeit from two different angles, one based in experimentation and the other in theorisation. While it does enable us to clarify one another's understanding of certain problems, it also engages us in endless debate. It is not unusual for our discussions to continue outside the laboratory, after dinner or on the weekend! Making a career in science often means that you must sacrifice a lot of free time to do research.

Even though you may be resigned to this and even enjoy it, there is no guarantee that the people around you will share the same passion. Although when two scientists get together, they are able to understand and support one another when the workload gets rough, it also means that the instability of a scientist's lifestyle is multiplied by two.

As a result, many researchers wanting to settle down are eventually forced to leave science, despite having worked in the sector for many years. Vika and I are lucky enough to be able to balance our work as scientists with our life as a couple.


Viktoria Ivanovskaya and Alberto Zobelli,physicists.


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