Community Spotlight: Interview of Erwan Poivet, PhD in Neuroscience

Image: Tree of candidate IRs

This month, MyScienceWork is casting the community spotlight on neuroscientist, Dr. Erwan (“R1”) Poivet! R1’s research in the olfactory capacities of caterpillars and vertebrates has led him to an important conclusion: humans are better at drinking wine than mice. R1’s scientific inspirations are just as off-the-wall: learn how science can help you win a bar brawl with Ryan Gosling, the physics of spaghetti, and what the whisky industry doesn’t want us to know… Hear R1 talk about DEET, too*…  It’s impossible not to get excited about science when talking to R1, but his enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate to the ‘institution’ of science – he has some truly valuable advice for early-career postdoc candidates. And for this unique interview, we have a French cartoon from the 1980’s to thank, obviously.

*As a fan of the original movies, Erwan has approved this Star Wars reference.

Feel free to connect with Erwan and discover more about his research in olfaction here.


(Find the newsletter this is written for here.)

Nia Cason: Hi Erwan, could you present yourself in a few words, please?

Erwan Poivet: Sure! I’m a young French scientist who’s worked in neuroscience for the last 8 years, and I’m specialised in olfaction. I did my PhD at the INRA (Institut national de la recherche agronomique), where I worked on the olfactory capacities of crop pests. After that, I moved to the US for 4.5 years where I studied olfaction in vertebrates – the work I did there was to try and understand how olfactory receptor neurons and olfactory receptor genes detect, accept, and can discriminate between molecules. I did my first postdoc in the Firestein lab at Columbia University in New York for 2.5 years, and the second postdoc was at NYU Langone Health in the laboratory of Dmitri Rinberg for 21 months, where I was working on developing a new technology called ‘CaMPARI’ [Calcium Modulated Photoactivatable Ratiometric Integrator], which is a calcium sensor to study the cinetic of the olfactory response in the brain.

NC: What is your background? And what led you to do a PhD?

EP: I’ve always been attracted by science, and mostly by biology. I completed a Master’s degree in Marine Biology, so in a subject that’s quite different from what I’m doing right now! And, at the time, I was sure of just one thing: I didn’t want to become a researcher!

In France, you can choose between a ‘research’ Master’s degree or an ‘industry-based’ Master’s degree. It was clear to me that I didn’t want to be a researcher, but I still needed to do an internship to complete my Master’s degree. I remembered a Professor, Emmanuelle Jacquin-Joly, who came to give a class about olfaction in insects, and something about what she was doing just… rang a bell. And so I contacted her concerning an internship, and I warned her, ‘If you want to hire someone who will become a PhD student later on, then don’t take me on because I definitely don’t want to do a PhD and I definitely don’t want to become a researcher!’ So I did my internship with her. Then, around the time of the economic crisis of 2009, I said to myself, ‘Well, a PhD comes with 3 years of money, and you don’t know how to do anything else anyway.’ So I submitted a PhD project, which was accepted by the doctoral school of AgroParisTech. I was still sure that I was not going to become a researcher, so it was just sort of to see what happened, just rolling the dice [Erwan rolls some imaginary dice that bounce across the room and hit the wall opposite] and then - krrrraaa! We won!

NC: So, where does your love for science come from?

EP: I had this question seven years ago, in fact. I was with a bunch of PhD students, and we were discussing where our interest in science might have stemmed from. And it was the same answer for all of us. Everyone was about the same age, born in the second half of the 80’s, and we’d all grown up in France; when we were young, there was a cartoon called ‘Il etait une fois la Vie’ [‘Once Upon a Time… Life’], and it showed kids how the body works. Each episode was about one body-related thing, like, what happens when you get sick, or how nervous transmission around the body works. I think that, for all of us, this cartoon was the starting point – the point where we thought, ‘Wow! Science is cool!’

NC: Has there been a turning point in your career?

EP: The first turning point was to get my PhD grant. Scientifically, it went very well, but it was less fun working with other scientists… [Erwan stares ominously into the camera that’s not there.]. Surprisingly, scientists usually have a very big ego – prior to that, I’d considered scientists to be very smart and open-minded, people who have new ideas all the time. But this is not actually the case. Scientists have their theories, their ideas, and they’re very protective of these, pretty closed off. I guess this is linked to how scientists have to go about getting funding.

Another turning point was after I’d completed my PhD. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to do research, but I was sure of one thing – that I didn’t want to leave France; there’s Paris, then there’s the rest of the world. But, I was young enough, my wife and I didn’t have a baby yet, so it was a good time to get international experience. I then had to move from my previous work in molecular biology to calcium imaging, which was one interest of Professor Stuart Firestein’s lab. It was like starting from scratch.

The most recent turning point was moving back to France, and this is where I’m at right now – I’m at the stage of my career where, if I want to continue, I need to find my own money. So you have to apply – almost beg! – to get funding. So, ironically, I came back finally wanting to be a researcher, but this is where I feel it could stop because I don’t have the money to continue!

NC: Can you recommend a must-see scientific event?

EP: I definitely recommend the Ig Nobel award, which is a kind of anti-Nobel Prize ceremony that happens about one month before the Nobel Prize, every year. It’s basically about ‘funny’ science – science that gets awarded for being funny. I think one winner was ‘when you snap dry spaghetti, why does it always break into three parts or more, rather than two parts?’ Yes, spaghetti will always break into at least three pieces. Always. And this is not only just kind of funny, but it’s also practically relevant to bridge construction and cable work, and so on. If you win the Ig Nobel award, you get 1 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, which is approximately 2 US dollars. Sometimes the Ig Nobel subjects can be really crazy – here’s an example: if you’re in a bar fight, should you use an empty bottle to fight your opponent and smash him down, or a full one? What do you think?

NC: Erm. I, er. I’d smash him down with… with a full one?

EP: Well actually, if you want to hurt him you should use an empty one [Erwan stands up and starts to smash multiple empty beer bottles over an imaginary person’s head]. If you use a full bottle, then the gas excess means that the bottle will explode without hurting your opponent. Which is very good luck for Hollywood, because you cannot really go around smashing bottles of beer over the head of an actor, like Ryan Gosling, without hurting him.  

NC: What scientific personalities do you follow and why?

EP: Most of the scientists I follow are absolutely unknown, as always. I follow Stuart Firestein, who is a Professor at Columbia University and a founding father in the field of olfaction. Professor Firestein was my first mentor in the US. He came to science in his 40’s; he was a former theatre director in Philadelphia and one day he just decided he wanted to move into science. So he did a PhD and became one of the top names in the field of olfaction. He has a kind of refreshing and unpretentious approach to science and has written a few books – the first is called ‘Ignorance’, and the second is called ‘Failure’, and he argues that these are what drive science. They became New York Times best sellers! That’s not common for books about science.

I also follow Ann-Sophie Barwich and her fellow Barry C. Smith. Ann-Sophie Barwich is doing a presidential scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University, and is known as the “Smellosopher” on twitter. She’s a historian of science and a philosopher of science, and if you ever get the chance to see her talk then you should take it! She’s truly a mine of information and has really helped me to put my work into perspective. Barry Smith is a Scottish philosopher of science, specifically in olfaction, and a Professor at the Institute of Philosophy of the University of London. He recently had a nice publication about whisky – he asked whisky specialists from France, the UK, and the US to decide whether they were smelling single malt whisky or blended whisky. Then, he asked non-specialists to do the same. The conclusion of the study might surprise more than one alcoholi… ahem, whisky drinker – no one could tell the difference!

NC: What is your interest in being part of the MyScienceWork community? 

EP: I learned about MyScienceWork about eight years ago at a forum for employment, where the CEO, Virginie Simon, was presenting the MyScienceWork startup. I learnt that it allows you to connect with people that aren’t necessarily in your field of expertise. This is a huge advantage because scientific research is usually set in very narrow confines – sometimes the problem you’re working on has already been solved in other fields but you’re just not aware of it. So, overall, this network allows you to get in touch with scientists, to have access to their work, and to share your own work. It was also at the time when open access was starting to flourish, and I found the idea of sharing my work with everyone for free very cool – so I created my profile two days later!

NC: Would you like to tell us about your publications available on the MyScienceWork platform?  

EP: First of all, all my publications are open access! The first publication is “The use of the sex pheromone as an evolutionary solution to food source selection in caterpillars”. Most insects use olfaction – their sense of smell – to make sense the world. I did my PhD on a crop pest caterpillar called the cotton leafworm; at that point, almost no one was studying the larval stage of insects. I realised that these caterpillars were expressing genes that were known to be present in the adults to detect the sex pheromones. [Erwan very patiently explains to me that the adult version of a caterpillar is a moth.] We found that caterpillars are actually attracted by the pheromones – in that case, you simply have to detect your mother to find the plant you have to eat. I’m very proud of this one because it turned over 200 years of knowledge about sex hormones, and our findings pave the way for ecologically friendly crop protection technology.

The second publication is called “A comparison of the olfactory gene repertoires of adults and larvae in the noctuid moth Spodoptera littoralis”, in which we published the first olfactory reference transcriptome of the species; this was the first time that someone had identified the olfactory transcriptome for the entire life span of the species. The idea was that, once you’ve identified the olfactory genes of this species, you can develop molecules to block these genes – this would stop the caterpillar from finding food, and stop the adult from finding their mate. The general idea also applies to mosquitos, too – DEET is an important repulsive molecule, and a mosquito that encounters it will turn away so you can avoid getting bitten, for example.

Based on my PhD work, it became clear that the significance of an odorant signal is completely different depending on who’s receiving it [e.g. moth vs. caterpillar]. So I wondered how we actually perceive this odorant signal. In our paper, “Applying medicinal chemistry strategies to understand odorant discrimination”, we looked at the chemical structure of odorants, the effect these odorants had on the olfactory neurones, and the behavioural response of mice to these odorants. Mice are very curious animals, so the first time a new odorant is presented, they come and sniff it, but after a few times they don’t approach the smell because it’s no longer new. We found that the behavioural results corresponded to the neuronal response results and not to the chemical classification of the odorants. In a follow-up article published this month [February 2018] in Science Advances, called “Functional odor classification through a medicinal chemistry approach”, we did the same behavioural test with a panel of ester molecules. Where mice failed, humans were able to discriminate between one pair of esters. Esters are one of the key components of wine. So the fact that humans are better able to discriminate between pairs of esters is a good sign for the wine industry, or at least, we’re better at drinking wine than mice!

NC: What do you think the difficulties are for young researchers?

EP: Well, there’s a lot! The main issue is to get funding. From my own experience, it’s a different system here in France compared to the US. If you want to follow an academic career after your PhD, you have to do a postdoc, which in France is a short contract of about one year or so. Sometimes you can renew your contract, sometimes not. It’s quite a precarious state to find yourself in, because you don’t know where you’ll be in a year. During this short postdoc in France, you also have to publish as many papers as possible, because this is the key to get funding or to get your next position – and this is a race against time! So in France, at least, we’re judged on the number of papers we have to our name. The number itself doesn’t actually tell you anything about the quality of the research, but sadly this is the reality. In the US, a postdoc of three or four years is do-able, so you can go for bigger or ‘riskier’ research projects. This means that you’re more likely to see more interesting results and to publish in journals with a bigger impact factor – so that’s definitely a plus when you want to apply for your next position.

NC: What is your position on women in science?

EP: I believe that the quality of a scientist is certainly (i.e., without a doubt) not linked to having internal or external reproductive organs! Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that I do work in the field of Biology, in which woman are quite well represented within the student population, perhaps more so than other scientific fields. So I might be a bad client for this question – but maybe I’m the exception that confirms the rule! I’ve always be surrounded by strong female researchers, such as Linda Buck, the founding father – or mother, rather – of my field. She received a Nobel Prize of medicine in 2004 for the discovery of the olfactory receptor. So, my field is rich with a lot of very strong female scientific leaders, which also includes names such as Leslie Vosshall, Mala Murthy, Judith Reinhard, Martine Maibeche… and the list could go one like that for quite a long time. And of course, my PhD supervisor, Emmanuelle Jacquin-Joly, in Versailles; actually, when I joined that lab, I was the only man.

I do think that this problem is not specific to science, and that it’s mostly a question of generation. At least, I hope so. I’m not really sure if it’s true anymore for my generation; I never experienced this kind of gender bias towards men. My wife’s always earned more money than me even though we have the same diploma, I’m a father, I change diapers, I stay home with my daughter when she’s sick… I do think this question will solve itself with the natural replacement of older scientists with younger generations.


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