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“For a kid with a hammer, everything is a nail”

PORTRAIT: In his scientific research as well as in his spare time, Quentin Geissmann has a very creative approach to things. Throughout his scientific career, he has tried to take a reverse approach by inventing new tools that push conceptual boundaries. That approach has earned him a tenure track position at QGG, and now he can add the prestigious Sapere Aude grant to his resumé.

When entering Quentin’s office, one immediately notices a table and two stools made of wood, with a distinct shape repeated three times and intertwined to create the structure.

“- Yeah, I made them myself,” Quentin explains. “Here in Aarhus at Godsbanen [old freight train station turned into a cultural center], they have a laser cutter in the wood workshop, so I went there with my idea and borrowed the laser cutter. It’s not very stable, though,” he laughs, while shaking the table a bit. “I quite often go there, mainly in the winter though, to work in the workshops. They have a lot of tools you can borrow.”

- You went to the agricultural high school in Quétigny in France, is that because you thought you would go into agriculture?

“- Not really. It was a quite good and small high school, and I went in the scientific class there. But I was not so good at school when I was a teenager, so my parents were looking for a smaller school and they found this agricultural school. That was nice, we were maybe 15 in the class. But I incidentally learned about agriculture. Maybe instead of doing geology, we would do ecology. And then we would have a little bit of agronomy. But it was mostly regular school,” Quentin explains.

What is a Sapere Aude grant?

The Sapere Aude grant is given to research investigators, who are highly talented, younger researchers, ready to lead participants in a research project on a high, international level.

Source: Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF -Danmarks Frie Forskningsfond)

- What made you choose biology as your research area?

“- I liked insects when I grew up. I loved going out, putting them in boxes, often waiting until they died in the box. And I wanted to be an entomologist [insect researcher]. In middle school I went to an entomologist to sort of learn for one week what is a job as a placement. And she worked in a museum. And I was really... It was involving a lot of cutting small labels and looking at insects very thoroughly, a little bit like a bookkeeper, but for insect collections. And I didn't like it so much, because it was very meticulous work, a specific mindset. So, I realized maybe I don't want to do that. I wanted more to study the biology of insects. So, that's what I started doing. And on the side, I was often playing video games. And I liked the logical thinking behind.”

- How did you come to combine your interest in biology with the computational approach?

“- At some point, it was in, I think, third year of undergraduate [at university], in the beginning of the year, my professor there he said: ‘Oh, later in the year, we will learn some programming and we'll use that for biology’, Quentin explains. “So, before the course, I started reading about what we were going to do. And I got quite quickly addicted. Instead of playing video games, I started doing programming. And I really liked it!” He smiles at the memory, and continues:

“- So, later it became something I merged with biology. I have, ever since, worked at the intersection between biology and computer sciences.”

- You did your Master’s degree in Paris, your PhD in London, and then you moved on to a postdoc position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. You have been around quite a bit. Why did you choose to apply for a position at QGG and come to Denmark?

“- That's a good question. I was looking, I was in my postdoc in Vancouver, and I was working on…” Quentin pauses a bit, and then continues: “Maybe I go back in time a little bit. In my PhD, I worked on insects and how they sleep, and I wanted in my postdoc to do something more applied, perhaps to agriculture. Like studying insects in fields, for instance pest insects or the enemies of pest insects. And I started building little machines and software to take pictures of insects and analyze them automatically. So, that was in my postdoc,” he explains.

“- I was looking for something to do after my postdoc. I was looking to apply machine learning, artificial intelligence, and what we call phenomics, to agricultural problems. And this job was very aligned with that. It was a tenure track assistant professorship, which I was looking for. And in the beginning, I didn't really think I would get the job, because I didn't feel good enough. I had applied for three positions, and I thought this is the warming up year. And maybe next year, I know better how it works with applications. But in the end, it worked out well, and I can do pretty much exactly what I wanted to do,” he concludes.

- It seems like you have a very creative approach to life – both in your research and in your spare time. Where does that creativity come from?

“- You ask good questions!”

Quentin laughs and pulls his legs up in a cross-legged position on his office chair.

“- I grew up in a family of artists. My two parents are professional artists. My younger brother is an artist. My grandmother is an artist. So, for them, creativity is the most important trait, perhaps. So, I grew up thinking I wanted to be different. I wanted to not be an artist, I wanted to do something rational, like science. But in the end, I realize now that I very much like a creative approach. So, we are more similar than I thought when I was an angsty teenager. I think that's where it's from,” he says thoughtfully.

Quentin is, however, very conscious about his different approach in his research:

“- Scientists, including myself, often ask a question and then create a set of tools or experiments to corroborate their hypothesis. Therefore, we often consider methods as "epistemologically secondary".  Throughout my career, I have tried to take a reverse approach by realizing that a new tool very often sparks original hypotheses. Much like, to a kid with a hammer, everything is a nail, methods and biological models constrain our creativity. As a result, I have worked at the boundary between biology and technology and focused on simple, scalable tools that pushed conceptual boundaries. I applied this approach to build small robots that study sleep in insects, or cameras to monitor insects in the field, and had been eager to translate this principle to plant biology.”

What is a tenure track position?

The position as assistant professor/researcher can be filled as part of a tenure track course, where the employee after a maximum of 6 years moves to an appointment as associate professor/senior researcher. The transfer requires that the employee is assessed as professionally qualified to lecturer/senior researcher level.

(From Act on position structure for academic staff at universities (Retsinformation))

- And now, less than 2 years into your tenure track position, you will get to do exactly that: Translate the computer vision technology to plant biology. You have received a Sapere Aude grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF -Danmarks Frie Forskningsfond), which is quite an achievement. What is your project about?

“- Plants grow in a large range of environments, and variables such as light, temperature and nutrients largely constrain their performance. However, it has proven extremely hard to describe and predict plants’ responses, given the time and space it takes to grow them and the large number of environmental variables. My project uses a non-standard, small and fast-growing aquatic plant, duckweed, grown in a custom-made miniature 3D-printed growth chamber. We will be using AI-inspired techniques, so the chambers will automatically update their environments to comprehensively model, how different variables affect growth,” Quentin explains.

“- I anticipate some challenges, but depending on the outcome of addressing these challenges, my project could provide novel perspectives to plant biologists by promoting a novel experimental paradigm, in which model plants can be grown at large scale”, he says, and continues:

“- My estimate of the impact, the project may have to society on the long term, is that virtually all the food we eat is ultimately made by a plant. Since our food systems are being challenged by multiple factors (anthropogenic climate change, soil loss and population increase), it is crucial that we understand how plants respond to their environment. This will help us to both sustainably adapt crops and to protect their wild relatives. Furthermore, we are increasingly interested in using plants for novel, bioinspired solutions, which brings new constraints. For instance, the model plant I am using, duckweed, can be used to effectively uptake pollutants from wastewater and create renewable material and biofuel. My project will greatly facilitate the optimisation of such bio-circular processes,” Quentin elaborates.

“- I am incredibly grateful to receive the prestigious DFF Sapere Aude funding. It will significantly impact my career by providing the resources needed to study underexplored aspects of plant biology. With this funding, I will be able to continue building a multidisciplinary and collaborative research team and mentor the next generation of scientists. This opportunity not only enhances my research capabilities but also allows me to grow as a leader, for which I am profoundly thankful,” he concludes.

- If, for a moment, we take a look at your current projects, there is a lot with monitoring insects and livestock. Fish also. How did you get the idea of studying earthworms?

“- There are many ecologists or agronomists, who study earthworms. What I want to do is use some of the methods that we are working on for insects, like taking pictures of them, automatically classifying them or monitoring them. And this we haven't done very much of yet with earth worms. Insects have very obvious ecological and agricultural relevance where there are pests, for instance, or pollinators. And we see them and they're charismatic. Earthworms are a little harder to see. We don't have them, for instance, in museum collections to the same extent as insects. They don't preserve so well. So, there are a few reasons why people don't really use these digital approaches for earthworms yet. But we're starting. And I think for me it was a good way to do something a little bit different, because I'm leading a small group here, and it seems like many researchers around want to do the same thing as taking pictures of insects, automatically identifying them. I don't know if I can compete with them, because they're very good. So, I try to do something a little bit different, for instance, on earthworms.”

- But it's quite obvious because earthworms are the… how should I put it, the number one improver of the soil?

“- They are, they have a huge biomass. You can find several grams of earthworm in one square meter of soil. But it's quite invisible and it's not like they have a huge activity. For instance, if it's winter, they are there but they don't do much. So, it's, it's unclear exactly how important they are. We think they are very important in some climate, in some locations. But we need some more tools maybe where they interact with plants. So, this we don't know much about.

And that's what you're trying to find out...?

“- Some of that, yeah… I studied behavior before, and I'm interested in how they behave. It seems like we can know the demography quite well, because you go out and dig and then you find earthworms. But if you want to see what they do one day and if they do something different the other day; do they go deep? Do they go close to the plant roots, or do they learn something? Can they learn that in one area it's safe or there is better food than in another area? Can they navigate? We know that very simple brain creatures in invertebrates can do some learning. We don't know that much in earthworms. So, monitoring them in a consistent fashion is a start to study their behavior.”

For the 37-year-old Frenchman from Dijon, growing up in a highly creative family, his list of hobbies is quite long, and includes cooking, gardening, various crafts such as knitting and woodwork, and sports.

- It really seems like all things come from your creative perspective?

“- Yes, I guess so… For my hobbies I like, for instance, to build things myself, or I quite like the idea of, you know, cooking or crafting or mending clothes or foraging food, and these things are a lot about creating new things.

You said earlier that you are happy to settle in Denmark. What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced?

“- Cultural difference…?” Quentin pauses an instant. “Oh, yeah. It's... It's difficult because if I compare Denmark to the United Kingdom where I lived really long, they're culturally quite similar. I think people are humble and introvert in both countries. But in France, people tend to be a little bit more arrogant and extrovert. Yeah, I think Denmark is not so different from the UK,” he reflects.

“- People are nice and humble and welcoming, but not very keen on becoming immediately friends. So, it takes time to get to know people. People are very self-conscious and aware about being Danish, where they think ‘okay, I'm sorry, Danish is very hard to learn, and I'm sorry, we're kind of introvert and we don't really sort of do a lot of social things proactively’. So, they are very self-aware and self-conscious, which is refreshing. So, yeah, I like it. I don't know if I can point out a specific cultural difference, because it's not so special compared to other countries where I've been, I think.”

Quentin thinks for a few moments, and then continues:

“- Of course, the relationship with food, for instance, is very different. Where in France, half of the time we think about food, I think we make a big ritual about food, and we have a longer food break or people gather much more to eat. It would be normal that I invite someone, I just met, to eat at my place. And I would say, ‘hey, I'm cooking, I'm making dinner, are we cooking together?’ So, it's much more integrated in the lifestyle. But it's the French, maybe Italian or there are a few cultures where food is more central. And in Denmark, it seems more secondary, which is interesting because we talk a lot about Nordic cuisine now as being very trendy. So, there is a difference between Danish restaurants and Danish lifestyle and attitude towards food. So, it's not quite yet aligned,” he concludes.


This portrait article is partially based on background replies from Quentin Geissmann to the Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF - Danmarks Frie Forskningsfond).