S01 E04 Leaders in sustainability - Meet Julien Toussaint

Updated: Apr 10

While governments all over the world are admonishing the younger generations of not caring enough about the Covid-19, because they party, ignoring rather than honoring social distancing rules, we found ourselves wondering how the younger people in our network react to the crisis.

Are sustainable challenges in the center of their attention? Did they use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to share?

This week, we have interviewed Julien Toussaint. A young bioengineer working at the Walloon Union of Enterprises (UWE). He is the National Point of Contact for all I.C.T. & Security EU projects.

Julien Toussaint

Last June, he decided to volunteer in a mission in Italy, where he helped to conduct tests for the Covid-19.

We have spoken to him about his view on climate changes in general, his experience in Italy in particular, and how these two topics have shaped his vision of Europe.

1. How his background shaped his future

Julien Toussaint

Science-by-trianon: Mr. Toussaint, can you tell us something about your background?

Mr. Julien Toussaint: 

I am a bioengineer. I entered the business as a technician and then I obtained a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Gembloux.

Science-by-Trianon: Why Bioengineering?

Mr. Julien Toussaint: 

I was drawn to bioengineering because

I see this field as the intersection between many different scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and physics, and I picked up a lot of background skills in all of these disciplines, as well as some mathematics, and all this was presented very much from an applied science perspective.

What is Bioengineering?

As a bioengineer, I very much had to be a problem solver, and given the complexity of the world we live in with all its climate issues, bioengineering is definitely the job of the future.

Here are the premises of his today’s job… Avoiding working in silos, getting involved with multiple stakeholders to make things move forward…

2. The birth of his interest in environmental issues

Science-by-Trianon: How/Why/When did you become interested in environmental issues?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

When I was young I lived in the countryside. I grew up in a very green area, with nature all around me.

Growing up I've seen the world-changing, pushing ahead optimising everything etc.

As a scientist, I began to wonder about the limitations of progress since we live in a world of finite resources and I realised that environmental issues will be key for the future.

There is hard evidence for climate change, we see increasing temperatures, we see the ice at the poles melting, rising sea levels, weather events have become more catastrophic in nature, etc.

To me, the fundamental problem here seems to be our lack of long-term vision.

3. Collaboration equals innovation - Michael Dell

Science-by-Trianon: You have applied yourself to the three core aspects of sustainability, i.e. scientific, social, and economic aspects. Tell us what you've done exactly.

Let's start with the social aspects.
You work at the Walloon Union of Enterprises, so you are at the heart of managing different stakeholders. 
Have you seen any changes in the way different actors work together?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

Indeed I do believe that collaboration is a key issue and that synergy effects exist -

sometimes 1 + 1 can become 3 or even 4.

Making people from different backgrounds work together on Problem X will result in more innovative results.

Science-by-trianon: If we understand you correctly, considering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) you are definitely working towards goal Nr. 17 which is 'Partnerships for sustainability'.

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

Yes, it's the premise of every European project.

4. What Covid-19 has changed on him, his work, his vision of Europe

Science-by-Trianon: Turning to current events, what has Covid-19 changed?

4.1 On your work

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

Everything, well most things, at any rate, came to a halt because in most companies it is the R&D department that gets hit by funding cuts first.

Hence, many companies have pulled out of projects because they've axed their R&D budgets and fired their researchers. Not because of their skills or performance but because of the financial constraints Covid-19 has brought upon us.

Personally, I was lucky because my job still needed to be done, I just had to stay at home for some time.

Now that it has become apparent that this will not just be a short time crisis anymore, many of the partners and stakeholders I am in contact with have come to the conclusion that innovation will be the way out of this crisis, and, of course, I have seen a lot of scientists working Covid-19 related projects and of a lot of this work is funded by the EU. The EU has put substantial funds into projects aimed at finding solutions to this crisis, on both the fundamental and the practical level.

Science-by-Trianon: Did you get the impression that researchers who are not working on Covid-19 related projects have no chance anymore to receive funding even if they fit into the EU's SDG goals?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

Well, all public funding is subject to political influence and since the political focus is directed very much to finding a solution to Covid-19, so, indeed, this might have an impact on other projects. Ongoing projects continue to receive funds because the funding bodies are legally bound to do so. Of course, some topics might appear less interesting now than they otherwise would have.

4.2 On you personally, and your decision to be part of the solution

Science-by-Trianon: So, which impact did the crisis have on you, personally?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

This crisis taught me many things, such as that a little more humility in our relationship with nature might go a long way. We might face the end of humanity but certainly not the end of the world. Nature has a way of going about its business without us.

This kind of disease hasn't been the first of its kind, however, the developments in globalisation over the last few decades, specifically in terms of transport of goods and people (tourism and migration alike) has contributed to the rapid spread of this disease.

Science-by-Trianon: Why did you decide to take part in the efforts to curb the disease?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

As regards to my decision to get involved in the fight against Covid-19 personally, it grew out of slight dissatisfaction with my professional role as a matchmaker and project builder.

I put the right people into contact for projects XYZ but once the particular project in question is on its way my role is done and I don't take part in the project in any way.

So, when the chance arose to take part in this project hands-on (B-Life, with Jean-Luc Gala at the Université Catholique de Louvain), I grabbed it with both hands.

Originally, my part of the work took place in the labs of Prof. Gala at UCL's campus at Sint Lambrechts-Woluwe, and then in Italy.

Science-by-Trianon: Can you tell us a little more about the B-Life Project?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

The B-Life Project was started by Jean-Luc Gala to investigate the post-pandemic effects on people's virology.

This project was run in collaboration with Zentech, a Belgian company based near Luik (Liège).

They have developed a semi-quantitative test for the anti-gens to Covid19 resulting from coming into contact with the virus.

You may imagine this as something similar to a pregnancy test. All the test requires a drop of blood and it produces the result (positive or negative) within ten minutes.

The project was then to deploy a mobile laboratory to a remote area in Italy, in the Piedmont region, and to connect the lab to the rest of the world via satellite (which is why the project was in part funded by the European Space Agency (ESA)).

Pr. Jean-Luc Gala

Science-by-Trianon: For how long have you been in Italy?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

The project lasted for six weeks, though I have only been there for four.

Science-by-Trianon: Tell us about your experiences. What did you learn? What did you think was well done, what did you think could perhaps have been done better?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

Well, the first thing I learned was some Italian, which was of course necessary since a working knowledge of English is not that common in Italy, especially not amongst the elderly who were our prime target.

I learned how to cope with a stressful environment, after all, we tested between 300 and 400 people per day.

In the same vein it also taught me some flexibility because we operated a system of flexible positions, everybody had to be able to do most things, and at a moment's notice.

Although it may sound like a truism I also learned (or it reaffirmed what I knew already), namely that the project deliverables are top priority, everything else comes second or third and everybody needs to have the mental agility necessary to overcome the obstacles faced in every project.

Science-by-Trianon: Can you share any information as to the outcome of the project?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

The results will be analysed with respect to geographical spread.

We have tested patients in the area around Turin and Novara, the latter being geographically closer to Milan, which was the epicentre of the outbreak.

Covid-19 outbreak in Italy (Le Parisien, Feb. 2020)

Indeed, we obtained a higher number of positive results in Novara than in Turin and we have observed this increase regardless of age or social status.

The results will also be analysed with respect to how long the antigens stay present in the body and therefore how long you can expect to experience their immunisation effect to last.

Another aspect is the question of whether different blood types result in different infection rates and/or different courses of the infection. These results will of course be published as articles in the relevant journals.

4.3 On your vision for the future...of Europe

Science-by-Trianon: Which effects of Covid-19 on European projects and collaborations do you expect to see once this crisis will be over?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

For me, it has become very much obvious that there is a substantial lack of true collaboration between the member states of the EU.

Questions of health and defense are still handled at the state and not at the Union level.

The EU merely facilitated information exchange.

In times of crisis, member states tend to rely on their own experience resources. This resulted in Country A labeling Country B as highly dangerous whereas Country C classified Country B as only moderately dangerous.

Handling a pandemic at a supernational level is not an easy task, as, for instance, Donald Trump found out. After he tried to handle the outbreak himself for a short while he quickly delegated the matter back to the governors of the individual states.

For me, the question arising from this crisis is whether we should take the safe option and stay a Europe of member states or should we take the risk and try to create a real Europe.

5. If he has a magic wand...

Science-by-Trianon: To wrap up proceedings, the traditional 'magic wand question': If you had a magic wand what would you do or what would you like to see happening?

Mr. Julien Toussaint:

I would like to see a true European government, with a European president who has got powers similar to those enjoyed by the heads of state of the member states.

I would like to see Europe as a unified area that can take stand in the world, particularly when it comes to the other powers in the world. We are an important piece on the global chessboard, maybe not the most important, but not the least important either, and this is why I believe we need an actual European president.

Science-by-Trianon: Mr. Toussaint, we thank you for this conversation