During her doctoral studies, Fernanda Haffner conceived of an idea for a non-profit journal called Esperluette at the University of Lorraine, Nancy, France, that would acquaint both scientists and liberal arts majors with the exciting scientific research done on campus.
Vera Koester talked to Fernanda Haffner for ChemViews Magazine about the stories she writes and pairs with original illustrations from local arts students from the Beaux Arts School of Nancy, France, and how the unique journal is received.
You created and run a non-profit journal at the University of Lorraine called Esperluette. What does the name mean and what kind of journal is this?
Esperluette in French means ‘ampersand’, the ‘&’ symbol. The whole idea of the project was to marry research information & artistic illustrations in a single piece of artwork. The Esperluette, or ampersand, represents the connection of the two. This is how the name came to us.
Our journal is a compact, high-quality monthly publication whose mission is to conduct outreach about the current doctoral research at the University of Lorraine. Note that the covered topics range from chemistry, physics, and biology to geography, literature, forestry, engineering, informatics, and other fields. It is a mesmerizing glimpse into research crucial to our collective future and a bridge between the scientific and nonscientific communities of the university and beyond.
What was the idea behind this journal?
We wanted to put two “opposite” and fascinating worlds together, that is, scientific research and arts, in the same spotlight. As a researcher, I wanted to inspire others to conduct research and to share this information since I strongly believe in empowering people through knowledge. I talked about the idea of the project with Émilie Schmidt, a former student of the Beaux Arts School of Nancy, who is unfortunately no longer on the team. She was thrilled about the whole idea. On that particular day, Esperluette was a tiny grain. We met some weeks later to further discuss the details of the project and Émilie brought along two of her colleagues from the arts schools, namely, Luis Rubio (illustrator) and Jeanne Champenois-Masset (editing/formatting). I also spoke about it to a former journalist colleague of mine, Diana Hembree, whom I met when I worked at UC Berkeley in California. She was excited about the project and offered to be our consultant. Next, I invited Sijin Li, a Ph.D. student in my group at that time, to create the blog and the Facebook page. This is how a fine-tuned team was built and the idea of Esperluette became a reality.
How is the journal organized? Who is on your team?
Basically, I am the one hunting for the monthly stories. I attend scientific conferences at the university and keep an eye on the projects around me. When I am at gatherings with Ph.D. students, I always ask what they are working on, so I can keep my contacts and story list updated. Once a certain topic catches my attention, I explain the concept of Esperluette to the student and invite them to have their work profiled in our publication. If the student is willing to participate, the work flows as follows:
The student sends me background information on their research (it can be in the form of scientific papers, a PowerPoint presentation from a previous talk, a Word document, etc.). I interview the student and do my own research online about the subject as well, which gives me tools to write an engaging story targeted to a young audience. Once the draft is ready, I get the approval of the Ph.D. student, then I send it to the illustrator and to Diana, our consultant, for copyediting. The next step is to integrate the art and the text and proofread it again. Once ready, it is posted on Facebook and the blog. At the same time, the work goes to the printer. I fold all 150 copies by hand (sometimes with someone’s help while sharing a glass of wine). Finally, the hard copies are placed in strategic places around the university campus, such as, in cafeterias and hallways.
However, Esperluette is currently going through a restructure of the team since we aim to take a different direction with the project and perhaps move to a European level, in which we would profile scientific work performed at universities throughout Europe. Recently, we welcomed a new illustrator, Laurene Gattuso, along with Federica Sebastiani and Hugo Gattuso as ambassadors from University of Lund, Sweden, and University of Liège, Belgium, respectively.
Who are your readers? How do you reach them?
We sought to target a young audience, such as the students of the university and the teenagers who attend the high school right next to the science department of the University of Lorraine. Why them? Because they’ll need to choose their career paths in the near future. Esperluette can give them a taste of what research is and all the cool stuff that is being done at the university. However, we have received some wonderful feedback from many people at the university as well, including Master’s or Ph.D. students and even Professors.
For communications outreach, we post the articles on our Facebook page and on the Esperluette’s blog. Yet the heart of Esperluette’s diffusion is the hard copies distributed across the science department campus. The charming printed editions are, in my opinion, far more appealing since the illustrations can be better appreciated this way. The drawback is that there are only 150 copies printed every month. I am looking into grants to increase the number of copies and automate the folding.
What kind of feedback do you get?
Usually when someone comes across the project for the first time and is familiar with the research world, they are enthusiastic about it and think it is definitely a great idea. Most researchers agree that our research will have more meaning if we bring it before the general public. After all, taxes go into research that is sponsored by national/European governments. So, it is my duty too, as a citizen, to learn about what is done with my taxes. At least, this is how I see it in the larger framework.
Young students seem to appreciate it too, especially because they have access to a short story written in English. I try to keep the story compact and appealing to the young public … Sometimes, though, the vocabulary can be hard on them, so we have a glossary in the printed versions as well. It helps them learn words in English at the same time.
In contrast, some older people, mostly outside of the science world, would prefer to have the stories written in French. We are considering providing both languages as the next step for French readers.
What do you like best about your work for Esperluette?
What I like the most about this project is the chance to understand high-quality research in different fields and to translate it into simpler words. In every edition, I learn so much! It is an incredible fulfillment for my soul.
Please tell us a bit about how your career has developed.
I earned a Food Engineering diploma back in 2009 in Brazil. During my studies, I was always involved in exploring the science of foodstuff in a couple of different laboratories at the university and while doing my six-month internship at the chocolate factory of Lindt & Sprüngli in Aachen, Germany. After obtaining my degree, I had the opportunity to work on a project in biofuels research at UC Berkeley in California, USA.
My curiosity in exploring different research areas and countries took me to North America for a few years until I decided I wanted to apply for a Ph.D. in the field of probiotics encapsulation. I found an extraordinary Marie Curie project called BIBAFOODS (Biopolymer-Based Food Delivery Systems) hosted by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and coordinated by Associate Professor Jens Risbo. The more I read about this project, accounting for 16 partners across Europe (among them were universities and groups from the private sector), the more I wanted to be a part of it. I was accepted by Assistant Professor Andreea Pasc at the University of Lorraine in Nancy, France. I defended my work in early July 2017. It was entitled, Encapsulation of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG into Hybrid Alginate–Silica Microparticles.
Can you please briefly explain the focus of your Ph.D. work and why it is of current interest?
Yes, sure. My Ph.D. work was featured in Esperluette’s first edition. You can also find it on our blog: Let’s start simple. Have you ever thought about the fact that you host one to two kilograms of hundreds of different species of bacteria inside your intestines? How’s that for a lot of company? Actually, this entity of bacteria forms your intestinal ‘flora’ and is composed of probiotic, or so-called ‘pro-life’ bacteria, along with pathogenic (or potentially harmful) bacteria. Both types of bacteria together help keep us healthy when their presence is equilibrated, or balanced, as most things in life are, by the way!
For instance, colon cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s have been attributed in part to changes in certain bacterial populations within the gut. But why are there such changes? These little hosts do not live forever, and once external factors knock them down, such as when you take antibiotics, how do we restore this very important equilibrium? A good answer would be by ‘somehow’ ingesting helpful bacteria and hoping that they will arrive safely to their action site, and eventually perpetuate there.
Let’s suppose you chose then to consume non-encapsulated probiotic bacteria for your health. In this case you would need to ingest tons of bacteria to get very few that are still viable. The reason lies behind the extreme conditions these bacteria will go through, the acidic conditions of your stomach, for example, before safe arrival at the target site. My Ph.D. explores the crucial issue of how to get helpful bacteria to the gut without destroying it on the way. What about encapsulating viable probiotic bacteria into edible micro-sized materials and further adding these materials to delicious food? Wouldn’t you rather pleasure your senses by eating deliciousness and at the same time reestablish the equilibrium of your intestines? Yes, yes, yes! I would definitely prefer this option!
That’s why I am researching this issue.
What distinguishes your work from others?
In terms of my research, we tackled the encapsulation of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG but did not just use organic polymers, which are often assessed due to the mild conditions required during their synthesis. We added to our system a micron layer of inorganic material, silica, that is known to be chemically and mechanically stable. In this way, we produced robust vehicles to encapsulate these probiotic cells.
One of the outcomes of my Ph.D. was the proof-of-concept for controlled bacterial proliferation in microcompartments and the procurement of alginate–silica microcarriers, which have straightforward applications in the oral delivery of probiotics (F. B. Haffner et al., Core–Shell Alginate@Silica Microparticles Encapsulating Probiotics, J. Mater. Chem. B 2016, 4, 7929. https://doi.org/10.1039/C6TB02802K.
What motivates you?
Exploring the ‘new’ motivates me. Not only in the field of research, but in my life in general. It is a fact that I very much enjoy communicating science to others. It is one of the most important civil actions that scientists can take, in my opinion.
In this regard, I would like to cite one of my favorite phrases from Albert Einstein: “Nothing truly valuable can be achieved, except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals”.
Thank you very much for the interview
Fernanda Haffner received her Food Engineering degree in 2009 at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Florianópolis, Brazil. During her engineering studies, she was a six-month intern at the R&D department of Lindt & Sprüngli in Aachen, Germany. She moved to UC Berkeley, CA, USA, in 2010 where she worked for about three years as an Assistant Specialist at the Energy Biosciences Institute.
She gained her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Lorraine, France, under the supervision of Dr. Andreea Pasc in 2017.
- Video about Fernanda Haffner’s Ph.D. topic