A Day in the Life: Stéphane Boissinot, professor and program head of biology

My day always starts with coffee.

It's the most important part of my day — not just for the caffeine fix, but for the conversation. I go to my lab, find my postdocs and talk to them. I’m constantly talking to my colleagues, students and the people I work with. People might say they see too much of me! But I find these conversations in the morning are possibly the most productive time of my day. 

We talk together about what they’ve been doing, what they’re working on today, or papers that they’ve read. I don’t need to create timetabled ‘drop-in’ sessions for my postdocs because we’re always talking about their science.

Next I go through my emails. As program head of biology, I have to answer lots of questions, make decisions and plan ahead — not just for the program, but also for my classes. I love teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi and I very much enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of our courses

For example, as part of the Core Curriculum I teach a course called Human Body, where I get to incorporate perspectives from the arts, literature, sociology, evolutionary biology, and physiology. I describe it as Renaissance-style learning, where students approach a question from multiple angles and explore the knowledge that can be gained from different disciplines. I love it and it’s great here because we have small classes and very good students who come prepared having done the reading and with insightful questions. It’s a huge pleasure to teach.

When I’ve finished teaching in the afternoon, I’ll spend the rest of the day writing, editing and working in the labs in the experimental research building where I’m based. As an evolutionary biologist, one half of my research focuses on the evolution of the structure and the size of the genome, and the other half on adaptation to the environment, specifically to altitude. 

NYU Abu Dhabi is a very tight community, and being so close is good for our science and our scholarship.

We’re a small institution with a very diverse faculty, so I find myself talking to people outside of my field on a daily basis. Right now, I’m collaborating with developmental biologists and cell biologists, and there’s potential in the future for broader work with chemists and engineers. These collaborations, together with the freedom to engage in research programs that might fail, is fantastic and the University is probably unique in these ways.

I work in bursts of half an hour, then I take a 15 minute break, then I’ll do another half hour and so on. It means I’m constantly collaborating with people in the faculty and talking about the different projects I’m working on. It’s very dynamic — some people prefer to sit still for five hours straight, but I’m not one of those. I don’t like to be alone too much. This is how I get most of my work done.

I like to pack in as much as I can while I’m in Abu Dhabi.

I like to pack in as much as I can while I’m in Abu Dhabi. It’s a great place for outdoor leisure. I love desert camping and lots of people working in my lab love it too. Recently we’ve started field work on adaptation to desert life — Abu Dhabi is the best place for this because it’s so easy to get out of town and drive to different deserts — the sand dunes of Abu Dhabi or the rocky deserts of Oman. Otherwise I’m off on field trips in Ethiopia or I take myself away for a few days to concentrate on writing papers or grant proposals.

I do field work with my postdocs and I travel with them too, which also helps strengthen our bond over their work. It’s one of the things I love about being here — when I was in my former role in New York I’d have to spend at least two months in the field to make it worth my while. Now I can go to Ethiopia to do some field work over the course of a weekend, and be back on campus a few days later.

I’m most productive later in the day, so I tend to work late, but when I’m finished on campus, Abu Dhabi is a great place to hang out.

Saadiyat beach, near the NYU Abu Dhabi campus.

You don’t need to go far — one of my favourite places to go at the end of the day is Saadiyat Beach. Only five minutes from campus, it has some stunning beach bars, and with a cocktail or a glass of wine in hand, watching the sun set over the Arabian Gulf is the perfect way to end the day.


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