Summer series: Careers in research. Florian Breider, who heads EPFL’s Central Environmental Laboratory (CEL), knew from a young age that he wanted to become a scientist. But what he didn’t know was just how important Asia would be in shaping his career.
As a young teen, most of Florian Breider’s contemporaries were riding around on mopeds. But he chose to spend much of his time at the Vaud Astronomical Society, indulging his passion for comets, showing visitors around the observatory and discussing the finer points of the cosmos. Add in the fact that his scientist father was the Society’s president, and he seemed destined for a career as an astrophysicist. Yet Breider’s inquisitive temper saw him follow a somewhat unconventional route into science. After taking anthropology classes at the Université Populaire, he got his first taste of EPFL as an apprentice in chemistry at the age of 15. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Fribourg, followed by a Master’s in environmental chemistry and physics from the University of Lausanne and a PhD in biogeochemistry from the University of Neuchatel. It was a journey that stood him in good stead. “Many engineering students follow the typical route into industry,” says Breider, who became head of EPFL’s Central Environmental Laboratory in 2018. “I chose a different path. Conservation has always been a cause close to my heart, so I decided early on that I wanted to put my chemistry skills to use for the environment.”
Breider has been fascinated by Asia and Asian culture for as long as he can remember. He traveled extensively throughout the continent, taking in the local religions, languages, history and music. His first opportunity to work there came in 2007, when he studied arsenic contamination in soil and water in Bangladesh as part of his Master’s research. “The environmental issues facing Bangladesh are nothing like what we’re used to in Switzerland,” says Breider. “Here, scientists focus on micropollutants that exist in extremely small concentrations. But there, arsenic kills thousands of people every year. It’s a problem on an entirely different scale.” His knowledge of the country meant he was ready for a potential culture clash between east and west. “Social acceptance is a big deal in Bangladesh,” he explains. “We had to persuade local farmers, many of whom were illiterate, to let us install sensors and take measurements and samples in their paddy fields. Part of the challenge was explaining the purpose of our work, and the benefits of science in general, in plain language. People there live a hand-to-mouth existence. Unless solutions to their problems are simple, cheap and easy to deploy, they’ll do more harm than good.” It was a life-changing experience in all respects – and one that Breider would later repeat.
In 2013, a chance meeting at a conference with a Japanese professor from the Tokyo Institute of Technology took Breider’s career in a new direction. He packed his bags and headed to the Japanese capital to take up a two-year postdoc position. His partner and child joined him in this new adventure. “Japan is a country of extreme contrasts, which is also reflected in how welcoming the people are,” he recalls fondly. “It’s an ultra-modern society but one with entrenched and often conservative traditions. Rituals are an important element of everyday life. Part of Japan’s cultural diversity stems from differences in its environment and climate.” Breider is keen to return to Japan when the opportunity arises.
Pollution: an issue that transcends borders
In the meantime, he’s teamed up with colleagues in Japan to study the effects of rainfall on plastic pollution in Kyoto. Because Japanese consumers use so much packaging, plastic waste is a problem affecting even those parts of the country with a reputation for cleanliness. He’s also working with former colleagues from Tokyo Institute of Technology to study the relationship between the carbon cycle and ocean emissions of nitrous oxide (or N2O, more commonly known as laughing gas), a compound that is 400 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. “We’ve found that as CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere rise and more of the gas is dissolved in seawater, oceans are emitting more N2O,” he says. “That has serious implications for us all. We have to stop looking at environmental issues in isolation and focus instead on how they interact.” Breider hopes that widespread media coverage of the discovery will raise greater public awareness of the complexity of environmental problems.
Breider’s walls are adorned with Japanese calligraphy art and sumo championship programs – not gaudy or ostentatious, but quiet and discreet, much like the man himself.
1981: Born in Morges, Switzerland
1997: Travels to Asia for the first time
2007: Carries out Master’s research into arsenic contamination in Bangladesh
2013-2015: Completes two-year postdoc at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan
2018: Appointed head of EPFL’s Central Environmental Laboratory
2019: Works on joint Swiss/Japanese study into plastic waste for Kyoto City Council
2019: Works on joint Swiss/Japanese research into the linkages between N2O and CO2