Q&A: A Taste for Science

A conversation with biophysicist Christophe Lavelle

Feb 9, 2015
Tracy Vence

Quinoa, gambas, sesame, grapefruit gelée, and herbsCHRISTOPHE LAVELLEChristophe Lavelle, a biophysicist with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) studying—among other things—how genomes are compacted within nuclei, has always been fascinated by food. And now he’s merging his loves for life science and cooking to teach biophysics and molecular gastronomy to both general-interest science students and professional chefs.

The Scientist caught up with Lavelle over e-mail in advance of the Biophysical Society meeting being held this week in Washington, DC, where he is presenting on his culinary approach to teaching biophysics, and vice versa.

The Scientist: How did you first become interested in the intersection of biophysics, epigenetics, and food science?

Christope Lavelle: From a purely academic point of view, I started as a physicist and was mostly interested in condensed matter. Then, frustrated by my lack of knowledge in living matter, I moved to biology for my PhD. But in the end, I was hired at the CNRS in the chemistry department. . . . I’m trying to merge the various disciplines—physics, chemistry, biology—to decipher the mechanisms behind gene expression. At the same time, I have always been fascinated by food. I cook every day. Therefore, it seemed natural to me to apply my scientific knowledge to understand the mechanisms behind culinary transformations. Now there was also a human element: having Hervé This’s [molecular gastronomy] lab just a 10-minute walk from mine was probably a good catalyst to get involved in this discipline.

TSWhy is cooking a useful tool for teaching biophysical concepts?

CL: My main research is dedicated to the understanding of genome compaction in our cells and the way this organization influences gene expression. I have to admit that the link with cooking is not obvious. But when you realize that 1) it is all about macromolecular structure and dynamics, and 2) the way you eat can influence gene expression, then you have two good reasons to be interested in both molecular gastronomy and genome mechanics.

Biophysics naturally helps us to understand the way we cook [and] using examples from food preparation is usually a good way to introduce key biophysical concepts to students. Food transformation and consumption offer convenient—and appetizing—opportunities to raise interest in science among students as well as more general audiences. For example, when you make a mayonnaise, you add oil (a liquid) to an egg yolk (also liquid) to get at the end something that is not liquid; further, the more oil you add, the less liquid it becomes. . . . These kinds of questions make you think about what soft matter is.

TSHow have you harnessed your interest in the culinary arts to advance your own research?

CL: People unfortunately used to think about “big” science versus “small” science. I hate the idea that some science is more worthy than other work. . . . One has to acknowledge that we all eat every day. And probably the best way to improve the way we eat is to improve the way we cook. So “should the egg yolk be at room temperature to make a mayonnaise?” or “Should I really add a pinch of salt in my beaten egg whites to make meringues?” are not [insignificant] questions—they are fundamental ones.

Regarding my work on genome mechanics, I tend to keep with the same very concrete questions. I like simple questions and simple experiments. I like concepts you can easily handle and things you can quickly try. Is it small science? Maybe. But that's the way I like it.

TSWhat’s your favorite meal to cook, and why?

CL: I am always cooking and for any type of occasion—for family, friends or just for myself—and always with the same pleasure, no matter the context. The whole process is fascinating: choosing the ingredients, elaborating a recipe, cooking, eating, sharing your impression when you eat. There is definitely a good mix of technique, art, and science in cooking, which make it a very exciting activity. Now, even if it is sometimes fun to be challenged with sophisticated recipes (big cooking), I think it is important to appreciate simple dishes (small cooking), as well. In other words, a Lièvre à la Royale is great, but so can be a good plate of pasta. . . . If you really want an example, OK: I’m particularly fond of seafood and also, more and more, pastry.