Faculty Spotlight: Jean-François Gaillard

J.F. Gaillard


Q1, Where were you born and where did you study (undergrad, grad, post-doc) 

I was born in Chambéry, Savoie – France – in the French Alps. I studied in Lyon, Chambéry, and Paris. I got an MS in Environmental Engineering at the Université de Savoie, a Dr. degree from the University Pierre et Marie Curie – Paris VI – in Water Sciences and then sort of super PhD – a D.Sc. in Physical Sciences at Paris 7 – Chemistry/Geochemistry; a degree that one obtains after a few years on the faculty. Now, if you look at the names of some of these institutions you may not find them as they have changed – rankings oblige. Most of the work performed for the Dr degree was done at the National Water Research Institute in Burlington (Ontario, Canada) on a NSERC fellowship and focused the impact of acid rain on sediment/water exchanges processes and metals dynamic in lakes. As for the D. Sc. it was a combination of research papers mostly in chemical oceanography dealing with processes at the water/sediment interface.  

Q2, How long have you been at NU & briefly describe your research program? 

Some people would say: too long....although by no stretch do I hold the current record. More than 25 years, I started at Northwestern on September 1995, you can do the math when you read this. The overarching theme of my current research program is focused on the environmental impacts of metals in aquatic systems, but I do some other things.  

Q3, What courses do you teach? 

For the past few years, I have been teaching CIV ENV 367: Chemical Processes in Aquatic Systems in the Fall, CIV ENV 365: Environmental Laboratory in the Winter, and CIV ENV 448: Computational Chemodynamics in the Spring, and this Fall 2023 I will be teaching again 440 : Transport Processes, that will make me think that I am young again – taught this when I started at NU- and a test for assessing how many neurons I have left that will let me do some math!  

Q4, Did you always know you would become a professor? What attracted you to an academic career? 

Not at all, this was the last job I was thinking of when I was a student in high-school and before. So boring to repeat the same thing over and over because people do not understand stuff right away. It is really something that evolved over time. It happened because my laboratory director and thesis advisor suggested that I apply to a faculty position that just opened in the Chemistry Department. Then I discovered that I could do research on what I was interested in, got some grants, interacted with students, traveled to conferences: perfect job in terms of freedom but paying a cost – academics were not paid well, at least in France and it seems to still be the case. Anyway, I stuck with it, never been in the ``real world’’ as some would say, although what is ``real’’ 

Q5, What is the most challenging part of your job? 

Dealing with the Department Chair on a daily basis – JK – and I am sure that this is reciprocal. Okay, on a more serious note there is this thing that comes every 6 years that has escaped my very cartesian understanding of the purpose of education. I find this very challenging and stressful. It is like been in a “cordée” trying to reach a summit with elements that may fall at any time. I should just stop. Sorry for this very “mountaineering” remark. Else, it seems that students do not understand my jokes anymore... I blame for this the development of all these anti-social networks.  

Q6, What do you consider your most significant research finding or accomplishment thus far? 

Can only mention here a personal contribution. This was very early, and it was about calcium carbonate precipitation in marine surface sediments when everyone in the community was focused on dissolution – maybe I should make a late start-up about C sequestration, - JK again. I got a lot of heat from some reviewers, some nasty comments, but also some good connections and friendships. After this, when I started on a faculty job most – if not all – of the accomplishments go to my former students/collaborators either on modeling or experimental aspects.  

Q7, Is there someone or something that has inspired you?  

Philosophy, as it is a discipline that forces you to think about how the laws of nature are, and therefore about our interactions with the environment. I am a Cynic – I know, this is what my colleagues think of me, i.e., that I am very cynical. But make sure to read more about cynicism as a philosophical movement in ancient Greece. Another inspiration was René Dumont. It took me a while to realize how his run for the French presidency in 1974 was earth-shattering. He wore a red sweater when every contestant was in “costard-carvate” and finished his talk showing a glass of water that he said he could still enjoy for now, but that may be difficult for many in the future! Last, the first report of the Club of Rome: Limits to Growth. 

Q8, What do you do for fun when you are not working? 

Well, since I cannot go either climb/walk to the top of any mountains or ski, I must compensate to keep my body functioning. So, I spin at Speck. I call this brainwashing as I sweat a lot. Around the house, I make old things – like me -- work again, although we are in ages of programed obsolescence. And then reading, but I have a hard time finishing some books, although it is not the case when they are well written...and in French.  

Q9, How do you explain what you do and why it is important to someone who isn’t a scientist or engineer? 

I talk to them about what is in the fish they eat, the water they drink, the chemicals in their food. That is when I do not talk anymore about climate change and my times looking at C dynamics in the Ocean. Then, they realize that I am no fun to be around before I can tell then about cynicism.  

Q10, What is one thing that has impressed you about living in Chicago? 

How flat it is...Okay, but there is the CSO and the Lyric..and living in Evanston, biking to work is rather pleasant. 

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