A French Knot Mathematician, with a Twist

On 1 September, Julien Marché joined the ranks of the Maîtres de Conférences at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. As in many other countries, permanent academic positions like this are highly competitive in France. Although he is quick to dismiss his achievement--"It doesn't mean much," he says--he has accomplished this at an age when most scientists are still doing their Ph.D. work.

Marché's path to his current position--"I'm 25, so it will be short," he says--began early. He earned a scientific baccalauréat magna cum laude at 16, 2 years ahead of the normal schedule. Instead of university, he went to the highly selective Classes Préparatoires, where he spent 2 years preparing for the competition to enter the French Grandes Écoles. He won entry into the prestigious École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris in 1998. There, Marché earned a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in mathematics after his first year, and an agrégation--a qualification for higher-education teaching--a year later. In his third year, Marché did a Diplôme d'Etudes Approfondies, a prerequisite to starting a Ph.D. in France.

Like most students at ENS, Marché began a thesis in his last year, working on knot theory--a branch of topology--at Denis Diderot University, studying "algebraic constructions related to knots, inspired from theoretical physics," he says. Three years later, in December 2004, Marché was awarded his Ph.D. with distinction.

Next, Marché tried his luck at getting a permanent position, which in France usually means becoming a Chargé de Recherche at a public research organization such as the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) or a Maître de Conférences at a university. "I wasn't accepted at the CNRS," he says, so he applied for a Maître de Conférences position. He was hired by the Department of Algebraic Analysis at the Jusseiu Mathematics Institute, which is affiliated with both the Pierre and Marie Curie and Denis Diderot universities, in a very competitive search. "You can count on one hand the number of positions you can have access to," says Marché. "I was lucky to find this position very quickly, in 6 months"; for many people, the search can take 2 to 3 years. He is happy now to be able to relax and focus on his work. "I have gained some peace of mind. My career will not be put at risk every year."

In France, new faculty appointees join an existing team rather than starting up their own. Although "the researcher is free to do whatever he wants," says Marché, "I will be working in a team, so I will necessarily get interested in their field of research." He sees this as an advantage, as it offers connections that he intends to explore. "I want to open myself to new ideas and start new collaborations."