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Interview with Louis Barriault

📷 University of Ottawa

Journalists: Romina Mahinpei, Kian Kousha

Kian: Hi, I'm Kian.

Romina: And I'm Romina.

Kian: And you're listening to SciSection on 93.3 CFMU.

Romina: We are here today with Dr. Louis Barriault who is a professor and the Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Ottawa. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Barriault.

Dr. Barriault: My pleasure. I'm happy to be with you today.

Romina: To start, we have two rapid fire questions for you. Firstly, who is one of your role models in the scientific community?

Dr. Barriault: In the scientific community, well, I would say that my former PhD supervisor, Pierre Deslongchamps, who is now Emeritus Professor at Université de Sherbrooke. I think the role model for me was that he gave me the freedom to do what I want, he gave me direction, but he (told) me: Louis, here's the tools, here's the funding, show me how good you are and take ownership of your project. I think having this liberty to accomplish what I have in my mind with his support was a great asset in my career. And the other person that I would say is a role model, and I never met that person before. It's when I was teaching medicinal chemistry at University of Ottawa in a fourth-year course. During the course of medicinal chemistry, I was talking about viruses and treatment against viruses, etc. And I came along with this person named Gertrude Elion. Gertrude Elion. If you go on, if you look on Google, you will see that person is exceptional. She was a woman and in the 40s, was not able to get her PhD. She was able to get an MSc but at that time it was very hard for women to do PhD and she tried to do part-time and she was kicked out. And then she had a job and on top of this, she worked, she was working as an administrative assistant in a clinic. Then, she joined Burroughs Wellcome, which is now GlaxoSmithKline, as a scientist because she had a master’s degree in science. And so far, this is the only human being who put on market six drugs: the first drug to treat leukemia in children, and one of the drugs that she put on market, AZT, which is the first drug to treat AIDS. And later on, she got her honorary PhD from Duke University, and she got a Nobel Prize in 1988 in medicine. The resilience of someone who was not able to continue a PhD or dream and work as a secretary, move into the company as a researcher and develop/put on market six drugs. There's no other human being who has done this so far. Save the lives of millions of people.

Kian: Actually, that is a great segue for our next question. So, what do you think has been one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time?

Dr. Barriault: Of all time? Many! To be honest, I will just focus on chemistry because this is where I'm most comfortable with. I know you can say, well, the discovery of the wheel. I mean, this is of course, something that you cannot discard. But I would say that the discovery of Antoine Lavoisier, who is the father of modern chemistry. Antoine Lavoisier, if you remember at that time was during the revolution in France, and he was an aristocrat but also a scientist and a biologist. And as a scientist, you know, at that time he was fighting against other scientists and also against the church saying that there's only four elements (like) water is an element. And so, he was able to demonstrate that water was composed of two elements: hydrogen and oxygen in a ratio of two to one. So, he was the father of stoichiometry. And based on that he was someone who (was able to) demonstrate that water is not an element. It is created by a gas, two gases: hydrogen and oxygen which at that time was not discovered. So, think about it. How would you do this at home to demonstrate that water is two elements? But now you know, I'm sure you will devise an experiment saying that, you know, we'll use electricity to do electrolysis, but at that time, there's no electricity. Nothing. And everybody believed that water was an element. And you demonstrate it's not true at all. So, I think to me, this is a great discovery because it itself (is) the foundation of what we know today as modern chemistry and without chemistry, well, there are no drugs. There is no vaccine.There is no biology that we understand. So. I think this is the foundation. For me, it's one of the most important discoveries.

Kian: That's awesome!

Romina: For sure. And now moving on to your profession, could you give us a summary of your educational path and how it led you to where you are today?

Dr. Barriault: Okay, I have to tell you this. When I was a teenager, I was not good at school. In fact, the advisor or the counsellor told myself and my parents that I don't have the talent to go to university, I should find a job after high school. And because I know I did not get a good mark; I will say this. I mean chemistry was not in my radar. I was more like a guy who played hockey. Well, I mean, sport was more important. Track and field was more important than studying. And I went to college, while in Quebec we have what's called Cegeps which is in between high school and university. We have to do two years of college prior to going to university. And during that time again, I was not a very good student and my mark was pretty bad. However, I had one course of chemistry by a professor who passed away during the semester, unfortunately, but he explained to me stoichiometry. And I understood and said wow, chemistry is cool, and then I refocused my energy and decided to say I'm going to chemistry. I'll do a BSc in chemistry. I went to Université de Sherbrooke and Université de Sherbrooke at that time, they were offering the co-op program which was new in Quebec. There were a few universities offering the co-op program, which I never did, because I decided to do all my semesters in a row because the first summer I was doing within Université de Sherbrooke, I did summer work in the lab of Professor Pierre Deslongchamps, my PhD supervisor. And I fell in love with organic chemistry. And I said, well, I don't want to do co-op anymore. I want to do a master’s degree in organic chemistry. And then I just, you know, put all my semesters altogether, I mean, one after the other one, so there's no break. And I finished a year earlier than my promotion, than my classmates who did the co-op program. And after one year, I decided to become a prof so I told my supervisor I want to become a prof. So I went to do a PhD and postdoc and the whole thing. But from someone who was told that you shouldn't go to university because you don't have the talent and the capacity to now be a Dean of Science, it's a big change.

Kian: That was really inspiring. A lot of students actually get fascinated by success, personal or professional, but without knowing all the challenges that were faced along the way. And I'm sure being in your position right now did not happen easily. So could you tell us about some of the challenges you faced along the way as a student?

Dr. Barriault: I think the challenge along the way is, I would say this: I mean, in science, we do support our students. So, we give them a stipend, so money. We give them money, so they don't have to find a job elsewhere. They can work in the lab and have support so they can concentrate on their studies. I know it's not a lot of money but it's enough to cover the fees of the department and everything. This is good. That is something that we try to (give students) so they don't need to go outside to work for their needs if they have to. I think it's very personal because depending on the students. Some students need guidance. Some students need less guidance. In my case, I didn't need much guidance. But some do need guidance, and as a supervisor, I felt that a student, when they need guidance, you have to be present. You have to be there for them. You have to help them because you know, as a supervisor, they talk about their science but also sometimes you talk about their personnel issues. And you have to be there and listen to what they have to see and try to guide them the best as you can based on your own experience and to be open-minded. And that is very important. Another thing is, you know, I think when you do grad studies, you have support. When you do PhD, postdoc, you have another type of support and now more and more universities in Canada consider postdoctoral fellows as an employee of universities, so therefore they have some benefits, which is important. Because when I was a postdoc in the United States, I had no benefit at all. And my income was $18,000 per year and I had to support my wife because she couldn't get a job in the US, and we have our first kid in the US. So, I was a support for my wife and my kids. And I have to pay my health insurance, which is $120 per month. So, you do the math, I don't have much benefit. So now giving more money to the postdoc, considering them as an employee of university, so they have more benefit. I think this is what is also important and making it more accessible to students.

Romina: For sure. I feel like a lot of students obviously do have the financial worries. So, it's nice that the system is changing and giving benefits to students compared to past times. And also, I'm aware that you're very involved with conducting research and formed The Barriault Research Group. So, could you tell us a little bit about your research group and what the focus is on?

Dr. Barriault: Oh, yeah. Although I'm a dean and manage a faculty (where) there are 5000 undergraduates, 800 graduates, 165 professors and hundreds of support staff. This is a lot of a big operation, but to keep my sanity, I need to have my research group going on. And I have 8 grad students, 2 Master's, and 6 PhDs. And although I'm very busy, my students are my priority. They are in my schedule. I meet with them every week, and we have group meetings on Fridays. My Friday is my Dean off day, so I can do research with my students. Yeah, my research is about organic synthesis. And we do synthesis of natural products that are important in medicine for developing new strategies, to make those complex natural products in a short amount of time, a short amount of steps. And also we have a project towards the photo redox, so using light and metal to catalyze reactions by removing an electron to catalyze a reaction. But when we develop this transformation is for a goal of application in a synthesis of natural products. We use gold as one of our metals, which people think is very expensive, but there's more expensive metal than gold, I can tell you that. So gold, we can excite gold with light and gold will act as either a given electron or receive an electron and then enable chemical transformation.

Kian: What do you think our scientific community needs the most right now?

Dr. Barriault: Two things: funding and recognition. Funding, it's quite evident. I think science is under-funded in Canada. I think we train scientists, these scientists work in industries or become a professor or work in the government, and they are the asset of our economy. Scientists work in industries, let's say in the pharmacy industry, they produce drugs to help Canadians. I think this is really, highly important. I'm not saying other professions are not as important. But we are not recognized for what we bring to society. I think scientists are shy. They are not out there to tell the people that hey, we are there. We're here to help you. We solve problems and funding research should not be seen as an expense but rather as an investment. And that is the same thing for education. Government and people shouldn't see education as an expense, but as an investment. I just want to do a caveat to this question. You know, unfortunately, I don't teach anymore because I can't. But I wish. I would love to. I like to teach. But when I was teaching organic chemistry, the first thing I said to my students when I went into class, I said, you're not students. You're investors. This is what you are. You pay, you know, maybe $40,000 through your course of studying. Apartment, tuition, fees, and everything. My course costs you about $800 per semester and is about 25 bucks per lecture. And I said, I will give it for your money. The point is, you're an investor. I mean, it's not easy. You have to work hard for you, your investment. Your investment is not the grade, it's the knowledge. And you don't have to go to Harvard or MIT. I'll give you as good as Harvard and MIT. Don't worry about it. But you’re investors. So (as) investors, you have to take care of your investment (which) means study. And don't be afraid to ask questions and get the knowledge. My job is to give you the best course possible so at the end, you get the knowledge and you can be more competitive on the market for a job.

Romina: Thank you for sharing that with our audience too because I'm sure they'll be happy to hear that, especially during such difficult times. I know a lot of us are taking some time to just adjust to the whole remote learning, especially with the upcoming academic term. So just as a final question, if you had to give one final advice to undergraduates listening to the show right now, what would it be?

Dr. Barriault: Advice? Manage your time. I think this is the success. Me, when I was not a good student, I got poor marks because I didn't manage my time. I was the person who studied last minute, thinking that everything will go fine until I found a routine and discipline that said, well, I will study well in advance (and) make sure that everything goes fine. And even the exam, this was an exam by heart, you have to give your answer by heart because normally I would never the day before the exam. I was just relaxing, watching hockey because I was confident because I studied for two three weeks before the exam. As soon as I did this, my mark went from D to A. So I think discipline and managing your time, especially with remote learning or online. It's so easy so well yeah, yeah, I will do that later. I will catch on all these YouTube videos. This is a mistake, procrastination. This is no good. I said discipline and manage your time and with perseverance, you will achieve your goal. I guarantee that.

Romina: Perfect, thank you for sharing that with our audience once again. And that does bring us the end of this interview. Dr. Barriault, thank you once again for joining us today and highlighting the importance of science. And for everyone listening make sure to check out SciSection's podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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