A Chemistry Career on the Fast Track

Born in Romania 40 years ago to nonscientist parents, Mihail Barboiu wasn’t exposed to science until high school. But he amply–and quickly–made up for lost time. Once in high school, he developed a fascination for “how we can control, how we can transform, how we can see and manipulate this inaccessible world.” And once in college, he made rapid scientific progress.

“His main scientific achievement has been to realize the interest of combining supramolecular chemistry with facilitated transport in artificial membranes.” –Christian Guizard

While still ridiculously young, Barboiu established the habit of pursuing several diverse, often simultaneous scientific projects. His philosophy was, and remains, “to start research projects in different directions … because if you start in only one direction you have less chance to find something,” he says.

Precocious progress

Barboiu initiated his studies at the Polytehnica University of Bucharest in 1988, pursuing a 5-year degree in organic chemistry engineering. He immediately stood out as a student who was capable of advanced experimental work, says Gheorghe Nechifor, who was an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Analytical Chemistry and Instrumental Analysis at the time. The department head, Constantin Luca, already knew Barboiu when he entered the university, having encountered him when he was preparing for the International Chemistry Olympiad. Barboiu was an “exceptional, always passionate” student, with a lot of tenacity, Luca says.

Because Barboiu spent many hours in the lab each day and quickly became independent, he was also given a small room nearby where he could work by himself, Nechifor says: “For this reason Mihail evolved rapidly.” It was an unusual opportunity for a scientist his age–he was just 20 years old–and he relished it. It was very important, Barboiu says, “to touch the molecules and material and also to do experiments.” Luca, he adds, offered him “the occasion to exercise my passion.”

Soon, some of the younger members of the department were collaborating with Barboiu, Nechifor says. Barboiu got to work on three different projects, spanning organic and analytical chemistry. He worked on the organic synthesis of molecules able to recognize and bind with other, smaller molecules, a phenomenon called molecular recognition, which had won Donald J. Cram, Jean-Marie Lehn, and Charles J. Pedersen the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1987. He also worked to synthesize inhibitors and activators of carbonic anhydrases, a family of enzymes important in the hydrolysis of carbon dioxide in living tissues. And he started looking for a new way of purifying amino acids in their natural form using artificial membranes.

He made good progress on all the projects, publishing five papers, the first in the Romanian Journal of Chemistry, as corresponding author, at the age of 23. After graduating in 1993, he started a Ph.D. at the Polytehnica University of Bucharest under Luca’s supervision. At the same time, he was appointed part-time scientist at the nearby Research Centre for Macromolecular Materials and Membranes of Bucharest (RCMMM).

The core of his Ph.D. was “the extension of the principles of supramolecular chemistry”–a discipline that focuses on dynamic, reversible interactions between molecules–“to analytical chemistry, notably in the field of separating methods with membranes of analytical interest,” Luca says. He continued his work on the purification of amino acids, seeking to overcome the natural aversion to artificial membranes of hydrophilic amino acids. He tackled it in several projects across both institutions.

Once again, Barboiu attracted collaborators. Three years into his Ph.D. studies, he was effectively leading a group of five young researchers in supramolecular chemistry at RCMMM. He also entered a collaboration between Luca and Louis Cot, who was the director of the Laboratoire des Matériaux et Procédés Membranaires at the University of Montpellier in France, which has since become the European Membrane Institute (IEM) of Montpellier.

Christian Guizard–then Barboiu’s direct supervisor at IEM and today the director of the Laboratoire de Synthse et Fonctionnalisation des Cramiques in Cavaillon–was “impressed by his maturity, his interpersonal skills, and his high motivation,” Guizard writes in an e-mail. Already, he “displayed the qualities which make a researcher successful. During his Ph.D. he proved dependable, motivated, creative, and, more importantly, open-minded about scientific breakthroughs,” Guizard adds.

Barboiu obtained his Ph.D. jointly between Montpellier and Bucharest in 1998, summa cum laude on the Montpellier side. He achieved his goal of purifying amino acids in their native form, publishing 15 research papers along the way. When he left Montpellier, “he had certainly a lot of things to learn,” but it was, Guizard says, just a question of time before he earned an international reputation.

Regaining independence

The Romanian academic system was such that, by earning his Ph.D., Barboiu also earned tenure in Bucharest. But he decided to take a sabbatical to do a postdoc abroad. After meeting him at a scientific congress, Lehn offered Barboiu a postdoc and funding to work in his lab at the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France.

During his postdoc, Barboiu entered the field of molecular machines, molecular assemblies able to perform mechanical movements in response to external stimuli. Back then, most researchers were working on making supramolecular systems that were able to perform either linear or rotational motions–“but Jean-Marie said, when I arrived in the lab, ‘You know, the most important mechanical motion in the world is the coiling motion of the proteins in the biological world,’ ” Barboiu recalls. So he made use of helical molecules available in the laboratory to study the reversible uncoiling/coiling motions associated with the binding and release of metal ions, eventually orchestrating transitions of helical molecules into linear complexes and back again.

“It was … very hard work,” Barboiu says. “Arriving in such a lab is the [best] chance in the world for a researcher to start his career because it’s really another world.” Doing research in the Lehn lab, he says, was like trying to catch a high-speed train, all the time. Barboiu did well. He “has very original ideas,” Lehn says. “He is very thorough, very serious, and imaginative at the same time.” Another of his strengths, Lehn says, is that he is “very active, very efficient [at] getting things done, and getting things done with … very good quality.”

In 2001, Barboiu left the Lehn lab to accept a permanent position from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), working at IEM. Barboiu had kept his projects going in Romania while doing his postdoc in Strasbourg, but now he resigned from his position in Bucharest to concentrate on setting up his new lab in France. He returned to the synthesis of new molecular parts for artificial membranes, building upon the work he had done at IEM as a Ph.D. student. A year later, he obtained an ACI Jeunes Chercheurs grant from the French government, then a European Young Investigator Award from the European Science Foundation and the European Heads of Research Councils.

Today, Barboiu leads the Adaptive Supramolecular Nanosystems lab at IEM, with four postdocs and five Ph.D. students. Among other work, he has developed “the application of dynamic chemistry to membranes, and this is a very interesting combination,” Lehn says. His research has moved toward using increasingly complex systems for producing innovative materials and functional devices. “The main point is to try to make biomimetic membranes, sensors, and things like this,” Barboiu says. His team has been working on making systems that mimic natural ion channels, for example, but much bigger so that they can transport entire molecules.

Barboiu has also moved into new fields. In 2004, he joined a Marie Curie Research Training Network of the European Commission, studying the sugar-protein interactions that mediate cell-cell recognition. He also set up collaborations with physicists to draw parallels between magnetic transfer and molecular-recognition systems, and with materials scientists to work on new polymers and hybrid materials. Barboiu also obtained two patents for the application of his work to the production of fuel cells and not long ago filed two more patent applications for the separation and sequestration of carbon dioxide. 

Barboiu is “a very potent scientist,” Olof Ramström, a supramolecular chemist at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and a collaborator of Barboiu, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “He has a broad interest and addresses a multitude of different challenges and problems,” he adds. Barboiu, he says, is “highly creative, able to see new pathways and solutions where others do not and able to coordinate many projects at the same time.”

“His main scientific achievement has been to realize the interest of combining supramolecular chemistry with facilitated transport in artificial membranes,” Guizard says. “For me, he belongs to the pioneers of biomimetic membranes, for which we can expect in the near future major advances.”   

Preserving the Past and Promoting the Future

GrantDoctor Renders Herself Irrelevant