Professor Antoine Jerusalem joined IMDEA Materials in 2008 following the completion of his post-doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He spent four years at IMDEA Materials as leader of the Computational Mechanics of Materials Group, with a focus on the modelling of a wide range of metals and composite materials. Jerusalem left the Institute in 2012 to take up a position with the University of Oxford where he is currently a professor of Mechanical Engineering and is also the codirector of the International Brain Mechanics and Trauma Lab.
Note: The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Antoine, first of all, thank you for speaking with IMDEA Materials. Our first question is how did you come to be working at IMDEA Materials back in 2008 so early in its history?
I joined IMDEA in 2008 after completing my post-doctorate. I was strongly advised by a colleague of mine at the time to consider it. I wanted to do research but also to be part of something new. So, I basically had two options, either to go into a start-up or to join an R&D centre built from scratch (IMDEA Materials). When I was lucky enough to be offered a position at IMDEA, it was a simple decision to say yes. It was an exciting project with good people like Maria Teresa Perez Prado, Jon Molina, Javier Llorca and Javier Segundo, Carlos González and José Manuel Torralba. There were only 7 of us but then things really started to grow. No question we were taking a risk. The handful of us who were involved at the time were really just trusting that we were going to make it work. Honestly, it was a bet but we fed on that, the fact that we were being asked to try new things and the freedom that we had. From the perspective of a young academic, the appeal was the endless possibilities that it offered.
What was your role at IMDEA Materials when you joined the institute?
I was in charge of computational hardware but it was really a mix of trying to do high-quality research, while also applying to very competitive grants, establishing industry links, and attracting high-quality students at an international level. It definitely wasn’t the same as going into a comfortable research centre where everything is done for you. We had to establish all of these links, there were things that had to be organised and prepared, nothing would happen if you weren’t getting your hands dirty, and I absolutely loved it. At the same time, we had to work incredibly hard. We wanted to make a name for ourselves on the international scene so there was a lot of outreach and just going around and showing what we were made of.
It sounds like you really enjoyed your time at the Institute. What led to your decision to take up a new role at the University of Oxford.
During my time at IMDEA, I was getting more and more involved in biomedical research. Back then, IMDEA Materials was really focused on building its reputation in metals and composite materials and they had a lot of very strong people working in those areas. So, when I was offered a position at the University of Oxford, and the opportunity to work with some of the best research hospitals in the world, it would have been very difficult to say no. It certainly wasn’t that I wanted to leave IMDEA, more that it just felt like the natural next step for me career-wise.
What kind of work are you mainly focusing on in your current role?
I’m doing a lot of work focusing on trying to understand how the brain works and in particular focusing on the multiphysics of the brain. It’s about trying to understand how it’s not just a firing machine, but that it also has biomechanical properties that play a role, and which have important clinical consequences. One of the projects I am working on right now is about what happens to the brain of a baby during vaginal labour. The level of compression in that process is unbelievable and we want to understand how it can be compressed that much, without having serious consequences. It’s really the intersection of mechanics and the functions of the brain.
On the clinical side of things, it’s about coming up with innovative methods to understand how the brain works, heals or is damaged and how we can provide solutions for some of these pathologies. Talking about traumatic brain injuries, what happens to the brain if you suffer from a trauma? And what actually is a trauma? How do you define it, predict it? For example, one of the projects we have now is with the Welsh Football Association to investigate whether multiple headers over the period of a football player’s career could potentially lead to long-term brain injuries. At the moment it’s something that people really don’t understand. There are regulations that restrict kids from practicing headers, but realistically, nobody understands what level of risk we are talking about, if any, and how to mitigate it. If you look at NFL or boxing, there is evidence that there are seriously damaging effects on the brain whereas with football, we don’t really know.
Finally, when you look back now on your time at IMDEA Materials, what stands out for you?
I learnt so much in IMDEA Materials. I would say that in my four years there, I learnt more than anywhere else in my life professionally. And I really think a lot of that was down to (then-director) Javier Llorca and José Manuel Torralba. When I joined the Institute, I didn´t know Spanish culture and I wasn’t a Spanish speaker beyond “una caña, por favor”! Not only that, but it was my first academic position so I had to learn things like how to write grant applications and how and where to get funding. Javier managed to give us the freedom to grow and to establish those links, and he gave us the means to do it while also guiding us, which is a very difficult thing to do. Having been in Oxford now for 10 years, I know better what it’s like to guide people without breathing down their necks and Javier got that right.
Thank you very much Antoine for taking the time to speak with us!
You can read our article on Professor Antoine Jerusalem based on this interview here: https://materials.imdea.org/alumni-in-focus-antoine-jerusalem/