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Goal: Blue Sky

E. Jardin & C. Schoch

Benjamin Guinot likes a challenge. After spending 7 months pedaling, biking from Paris to Beijing, he set his saddlebags down in the Chinese capital to measure air pollution.

"For some, the PhD is the outcome of long years of effort. For me, it was the starting point for new adventures," explains Benjamin Guinot. You can say that again! As soon as he got his PhD in the physical chemistry of the atmosphere from the Climate And Environmental Sciences Laboratory (LSCE, CEA/CNRS) in May 2006, Benjamin could have followed the way already paved by his colleagues — a postdoc in Germany or the United States —, but he had already chosen China as a field of investigation for his doctoral research, and Asia still had appeal for him. Straddling his bike for seven months, he would cover nearly 12,000 km on the strength of his calves and determination alone. Beyond the athletic and human adventure, Benjamin wanted to bear witness to the state of the environment in countries he crossed, 14 altogether.

Back in France, while the CNRS offered him a postdoc, Benjamin wanted to leave the doors open to both the private and public sphere. So that he could have a taste of both, he opted for an original solution: a part-time fixed term contract financed by the CNRS and a part-time fixed term contract financed by a French SME on a project cosponsored by the city of Beijing to measure air pollution on the Olympic Games site and its vicinity. To do so, a new type of measurement instrument had to be installed.

Since 2004, Leosphere has been developing laser instruments to measure pollution, particularly particle distribution and density in the atmosphere. Benjamin, with his research engineer cap, is in charge of adapting to Beijing the laser that is already installed in other large cities (Paris, Washington and Tokyo). Honing to the specificity of a terrain where particle pollution is particularly dense and transmitting development requests to the French engineers is the R&D aspect of Benjamin's activities, since he is also Leosphere’s sales rep in Asia. From China, Taiwan, South Korea and India all the way to Australia, Benjamin hops on one plane to the next to introduce the product to research institutes, meteorological agencies and public and private actors in charge of monitoring air quality.

On the research end, Benjamin is the liaison between French expertise and the various labs of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing and the Anhui Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics in Hefei) with which he had built up good working relations during his previous research and which themselves were developing their own measurement instruments. "The market may seem new, but innovation goes so fast in China that it's wise to establish lasting partnerships now with those who may be our competitors of tomorrow!"

Benjamin doesn't restrict himself to his original network. We met him at a conference organized by the CNRS Asian network that deals with an array of issues specific to social and human sciences. What is this physical chemist doing among specialists of Chinese poetry under the Ming dynasty? "With measurement and modeling instruments from the Laboratory of Aerology in Toulouse, I'm working on assessing the impact of air pollution on public health in large Chinese cities today and projecting into the future depending on various development scenarios. That requires an approach combining hard sciences and human sciences. It's what I'm putting together with sociologists and healthcare specialists in France, as I am doing in China with socio-economists from the University of Tsinghua in Beijing and urban development authorities in charge of Chongqing in the center of the country."

Between private and public, will Benjamin have to make a choice? Listening to him tell his story in the middle of his "humanities" colleagues, we wonder if Benjamin isn't in the process of becoming a research manager, orchestrating future projects that combine industrial and scientific partnerships.