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Looking for the next generation of Einsteins and Hubbles

“Let’s support the Albert Einsteins and Edwin Hubbles of the 21st Century” This is the fundraising campaign slogan of Lagrange Institute Paris (ILP), a Labex of Sorbonne University in partnership with the University’s Pierre and Marie Curie Foundation. This shows just how important post-doctoral and doctoral programs are at the institute, which is oriented toward exploring the universe. They want to attract the most promising young scientists from around the world. Director Benjamin Wandelt explains.

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What are Lagrange Institute Paris’ specific qualities and strengths?

The institute’s strength lies in how it manages to cover both larger-ranging questions about the beginnings of the universe, fundamental physics (the laws of particle physics and theoretical physics), the origin and evolution of the universe, its content and the consequences of this content on future evolution. It asks such questions as: How did the universe begin? What exactly happened during the Big Bang? What about today’s most mysterious components - dark energy and dark matter? What implications will they have on the future?
The Labex brings together leading scientists, including astrophysicists and theoretical physicists, mainly from three laboratories affiliated with the UPMC: the Institut d’astrophysique de Paris, the Laboratoire de physique théorique et des hautes énergies and the Laboratoire de physique nucléaire et des hautes énergies. Several of them have played an important role in some decisive advances over the past few years, such as the Higgs Boson discovery. 

Why have you decided to make attracting the best young scientists from around the world one of your Labex’s strategic priorities?

In order to conduct cutting-edge research in our domains, we need data (observations from space missions and earth experiments), high-powered super computers, researchers and, in particular, young talents to provide for the future. This last point is of considerable importance for our prospects, not just in France but also in general. That is why we have started an international fellowship program for young doctors with a high degree of excellence who can lead ambitious research projects. This program is conducted as part of an ILP post-doctoral scheme. We provide researchers with a working environment that is conducive to cutting-edge research, where they will be able to work alongside top-level institute researchers, meet scientists who are invited as part of our visitor program, participate in the conferences we organize, and much more. 

In other words, these are independent research positions

We intend to boost our field of study by providing our fellows with the necessary means to start their projects without having to worry about other things, so that the only risk involved is solely reserved for their research. We provide a three-year post-doctoral research position, which is rare, and allocate funds for tasks linked to researchers’ projects – if they need to bring a colleague to Paris for a few days to help them make progress with their research, for example, or they are participating in a conference abroad, or organizing an international conference by themselves to share their findings with their colleagues.
The admissions process is highly selective. We receive over 350 applications every year, at least 80% of which are international (from the United States, European countries and so on) for only three positions. We then select the candidates with the most promising educational and academic background and research projects. 

When did this program start?

The Labex emerged in 2011 and the program debuted in 2012. We are very proud to have always maintained our integrity. When we receive the level of funding we are entitled to for our Labex we are asked to supplement other university budgets, but we have decided to use this money for projects that we could not otherwise finance. Attracting the “crème de la crème” of young international researchers is one of them, as we need to be able to compete with other institutes worldwide, which have special budgets for this.  

What is your policy for doctoral students?

We also have a PhD Thesis Fellowship program. Every year, we publish a list of subjects chosen by the thesis directors and, there too, admission is on a highly selective international basis, as we also want to attract the most promising doctoral students. On average, we take in five students per year. Most of them are fully covered by the ILP in terms of salaries, as well as support grants for taking part in summer schools, going to conferences, sharing findings and the like. Some of them also benefit from other funding for their salaries (for example, via a doctoral school, the Fondation CFM pour le Recherche, the ENS or Polytechnique), which enables us to take in more doctoral students. These students also benefit from an ILP support grant.

We have also run an international master’s program since 2015, for which we allocate two or three grants per year to international students, allowing them to pursue one of the two M2 Physics and Applications master’s specialties in our research domains. Students may then apply for positions as ILP PhD Thesis Fellows. 

Is the ILP’s excellence recognized? In other words, is your institute an effective springboard for young scientists?

Some 50% of our fellows managed to find a permanent position in France or abroad straight after completing their post-doctoral studies at ILP – a very high success rate. Some young researchers have gone on to join post-doctoral programs at prestigious institutions, such as Oxford University, or have received funding from the CNES or the European Commission (Marie Sklodowska-Curie individual grants) to continue their research after completing their thesis at the ILP. Young scientists have a lot to gain from coming to our institute, and we have a lot to gain from welcoming them as they then go on to become ILP ambassadors. This investment provides international visibility for the excellence of the Labex’s work.  

Why have you launched a fundraising campaign with the UPMC Foundation to support 21st-century Einsteins and Hubbles?

Our Labex funding will end on December 31, 2019. We will have to find new funding sources in order to continue our fellowship programs, hence the idea to call upon private funding in partnership with the UPMC Foundation. At the moment, we mainly target former UPMC students as donors in order to finance three-year support grants for four doctoral researchers. This is the first step. We have a few potential solutions to go a bit further in finding other donors, however, such as international foundations and individuals that are passionate about our research topics. In other countries, most cutting-edge research institutes usually receive funding from a few private donors. 

Is that really a viable alternative in a country like France, where it is quite a foreign concept?

Our work cannot be applied to industry. Our rationale is to explore burning questions and find answers to help boost understanding of the universe. This could have major long-term indirect benefits, but is in essence unpredictable. For example, Einstein could never have imagined that we would use the theory of relativity every day in the 21st century for our smartphones’ satnavs!
Nonetheless, our research interests the general public and potential donors quickly understand that being able to ask fundamental questions with a certain amount of freedom is precious and must be preserved – especially in a country like France, which has, historically speaking, made an extremely impressive contribution to fundamental research. Above all, this is a crucial time, when we are at last starting to get a comprehensive vision of the universe, its components and its history.

An ILP postdoctoral researcher’s point of view:

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Elenora Di Valentino

Elenora Di Valentino, fellow at ILP, doctor from the university of La Sapienza (Rome)

“The stimulating interdisciplinary environment at the Lagrange Institute and its leading scientists mean that I can find the expertise I need to use the best databases, such as the Planck space mission database, and make progress in my research work. “Generally speaking, it is the ideal place for my research, which sits at the crossroads of cosmology and fundamental particle physics. For example, I can study neutrinos and other light elementary particles, such as axions, or go beyond standard cosmological models and test Einstein’s theory of relativity.”

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