Spread the word: Yasmine Belkaid is back in France! Even with all the fanfare, the announcement is unlikely to move the general public. Scientists rarely make the headlines – except when they win a Nobel Prize… or come up with dubious treatments to defeat a pandemic. In the world of medical research, however, the arrival of the French-Algerian immunologist at the head of the Institut Pasteur, after a quarter of a century spent in the United States, is a major event. All the more so as only one woman has held this position before her.
“All the American universities bent over backward for her and she came to us. It’s a minor miracle,” said Alain Fischer, president of the Académie des Sciences and an immunologist like her. “A miracle? I’d say it’s a very reasoned choice,” corrected her friend Bana Jabri, also an immunologist, professor at the University of Chicago and future director of the Imagine Institute in Paris. “This decision combines her scientific, political and human interests.”
Anthony Fauci, her boss for 17 years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), made no secret of his ambivalent feelings. “It is with a combination of sadness and positive excitement that we here in the United States and at the NIH bid farewell to Yasmine Belkaid,” said the “Mr. Public Health” of the last eight American presidents. “We are sad because we are losing one of our most valued and cherished scientists and excited in a positive way because we know that she will be the president of the Institut Pasteur, one of the most outstanding biomedical research institutions in the world.” The stage is set.
Science, her refuge
To speak of Belkaid’s “return to France,” however, is to forget her third homeland. Or rather her first: Algeria. That’s where she was born, in August 1968, into a binational family deeply marked by the independence struggle. Her father left school to join the guerrillas at the age of 13. Purely self-taught, he climbed the administrative ladder to become a senior civilian servant and then a minister. Her French mother, a classical literature teacher, crossed the Mediterranean in 1962 “to come and rebuild the country and repair the ravages of colonization.” In the family, liberty, commitment and knowledge were cherished.
Young Yasmine added a very personal passion to this mix: science. She discovered it while on vacation in France, at the home of her pharmacist grandmother. “She had a laboratory behind the pharmacy,” she recalled. “My first toys were scientific objects on a white bench. And she would take me up into the mountains, showing me plants and how they could be transformed into remedies. When I was 6, I announced that I wanted to become a researcher. I started writing an encyclopedia. I stopped at the letter A, after maybe two entries. But it was decided.”
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