Jean-René, French director of the French-Chilean International Associate Laboratory, had to adapt his working methods after a lab accident left him blind and damaged his hands.
The charm of experiments
Jean-René, a French born chemist, was captivated by the charm of experiments. He explains, “attaching an element or a group of elements to another one to form new compounds and adding drops of acid or base into a test tube to make the contained solution change colour were fascinating experiments!” Throughout high school, his interest in chemistry grew from his teachers that brought equations on the blackboard into reality.
After experiencing Didier Astruc’s enthusiastic and dynamic teaching style at the Institute of Chemical Engineering, Jean-René was encouraged to study for a chemistry degree.
“An exam he gave us was based on an organometallic molecule he prepared in his lab! The word ‘organometallic’ was not known to me but the curious tridimensional sandwich-like compound was completely different from the classical flat structures of the organic molecules I was aware of.”
Jean-René completed his undergraduate degree from the University of Rennes in 1979 and seized the opportunity to work with Didier Astruc as a PhD student, researching organometallic iron(I) electron reservoirs and their reactivity towards dioxygen. “I did it, I graduated. The four year period of my PhD work under his supervision was really an exciting and enjoyable part of my life both from a scientific and human viewpoint!” Jean-René’s early career contributions were recognised by the French National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) Bronze medal as well as the University of Rennes Gineste Prize for his PhD work.
My life had irreversibly changed
Unfortunately, his chemistry career came to a sudden stop. During his post-doctoral position at the University of California, Berkeley, Jean-René, aged 27, suffered a tragic accident. “I became blind when there was an explosion of a glass tube containing perchlorate salt. I also lost two fingers and half of the palm of my left hand. I immediately understood that my life had irreversibly changed.” After two months in hospital, he spent a gruelling year recovering and learning how to live with his disability. He learnt how to walk with a white stick, to read the language of Braille and how to typewrite.
“Despite the trauma, I was willing to get out of this nightmare, to go ahead and to start a new life where I knew I would have to face and overcome a lot of difficulties. I had to do it for my wife and my first daughter who was directly impacted.”
Jean-René is a strong believer that his position at the CNRS before his accident was important for his career development in chemistry. It was impossible for him to carry on his research as he had done previously, but he found ways to adapt. With a technician to help in the lab and publications that were recorded onto tapes, he found a successful working process, albeit one that was long-winded and time-consuming.
A positive future
“Fortunately things have changed with time and since the middle of the nineties, I could use MS Word, e-mail and the internet equipped with speech programmes. I can follow scientific literature and exchange documents with everyone throughout the world by myself. I’m pleased to surf on the Royal Society of Chemistry website and read my favourite journals, even if all the graphics are totally excluded!”
In his current role as French director of the French-Chilean International Associate Laboratory, Jean-René carries out research in the field of coordination chemistry. “An enjoyable part of my job is when unexpected results come out. It is always stimulating as they raise new questions that need to be solved to progress in your project.”
“It is hard for me to believe that a person that never sees can study chemistry because it is an experimental science. I have never met or heard any blind chemist carrying out research like me.” Despite this, Jean-René sees positives in the future, “working with a disability is possible; finding a job that fits with it is much more difficult. I think that education is the only way to help promote diversity and help minority groups to advance in science and technology.”
Jean-René’s attitude to his experience reflects the obstacles that many feel during their career, but he emphasises the importance of being enthusiastic. “For anyone considering a career in chemistry, it is as for any other job; try to make longstanding interests within the field. I know it is easier to say than to do!”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Jean-René Hamon
Published October 2014