Top right photo courtesy of Eli Lilly and Company.
A college internship introduced Xavier Perrodon to robotics. A spirit of adventure moved him across two continents. Discover how a busy laboratory automation specialist keeps one foot in the lab and the other traveling on international turf.
His fascination with Asian culture started with Taekwondo lessons when he was 18. While the Korean martial art didn't launch his scientific career, SLAS member Xavier Perrodon, M.S., says Taekwondo training did cultivate the endurance, persistence and perseverance he would need in other areas of his life. It also taught him some basic Korean vocabulary, something that was important when his first laboratory automation job landed him in Seoul, South Korea for three years.
Fast forward nine years, four countries and four jobs later, and it's not surprising to find that Perrodon has relocated again. This time he has settled in Japan. After studying for six months in a full-time Japanese language school, he recently joined the growing Japanese biotech company, PeptiDream, as an automation engineer. What drives someone to pursue this much continual change? For Perrodon, it was more than a craving for cultural adventure. It was also a love for science and robotics.
At first everything except science had a strong hold on this Renaissance Man. During Perrodon's youth in France he pursued activities ranging from music – he played flute, trumpet and any sort of keyboard – to martial arts, personal computers and foreign languages. "In my last year of high school, we did a bit of organic chemistry. I found that exciting. I was comfortable with it as well as mathematics, physics and anything related to science, but I didn't have what I would call a strong passion for it," he comments.
Language, however, did hold a particular fascination for him. "I have often wondered if my grasp of languages stems from playing musical instruments from a very young age," Perrodon says, pausing to consider. "It must have developed my ear. I think it must train your brain to better reproduce the sounds that you hear." When he was 12 years old, he began learning English. When he was 14 he added German and Ancient Greek.
"People told me learning German and Greek at the same time would be difficult, but I liked the challenge and thought Greek would be nice to have. Many scientific terms have Latin or Greek origins. It is easier for me to understand some technical terms by knowing these languages," Perrodon explains. During his college years, he studied Italian for a year and took Korean evening classes for 18 months at the Korean Cultural Centre in Paris because a friend of his wouldn't go alone.
Along with his passion for languages came another obsession: personal computers. Perrodon believes this was only natural as his father had started his career working in IT and kept a PC in the house from the time his children were young.
"We had this PC at home when I was in high school, and my father was convinced I was using it to do programming or write reports for school. Actually I was mostly using it to play games! I was constantly tweaking the system to keep pace with gaming. A few of those days, it made me sweat. My father would be on his way home from work, and I would be scrambling to put the computer back the way it was before! That was a great learning experience" Perrodon recalls. "I'm sure, however, he suspected something was wrong!"
Perrodon's passion for computers continued into his college years as a chemical engineering student at École Supérieure de Chimie Organique et Minérale (ESCOM) located in Compiègne, France. During his visits home, he would spend time with his younger brother dismantling computers, recycling old PC parts, testing exotic configurations or setting up local networks in the house. In fact, the Perrodon siblings – he also has a younger sister – frequently disrupted their mother's vacuuming schedule by scattering the wrecked remains of computers through the upstairs hallway that connected their bedrooms. "There were cables all over the place!" laughs Perrodon, adding that from time to time his mother would issue an ultimatum about the situation.
During those college years, a class on industrial control and automated regulation captivated him. "It taught me such a useful way of thinking," says Perrodon. "The class was part of a larger industrial chemistry course. It was all about learning how to regulate industrial processes and communicate with machines – things we had to know in order to work with big chemical reactors," he explains. Several conversations with the instructor led to an internship in her Paris laboratory in 2001 at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM), a government-operated higher education institute.
In the course of this week-long internship, held during the school holidays, Perrodon discovered an old Zymark robotic platform in use by two Ph.D. students. An immediate connection formed for him. "When I saw that first robot, it was like when you fall in love," he laughs, remembering the experience. "I found it absolutely fantastic! I knew I wanted to work with it. This is when I really found out about my interests. Every time we had holidays after that, I would spend time in the lab. I spent a year and a half doing several internships in a row programming the machines and the robotic platform," he says. In 2001, he completed a master's degree in chemical engineering from ESCOM, and earned a second master's degree in 2002 from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie while trying to find a way to remain in robotics. During his second master's program, Perrodon also worked part time as an IT manager in a real estate company. "This taught me a few useful things like network administration, web programming and dealing with internal clients," he explains.
The quest for other robotics work was a bumpy road, but Perrodon didn't change his path. One day, a news brief in a small French laboratory magazine caught his eye. It announced plans for the French-based infectious disease institution, Institut Pasteur in Paris, to open a new research center in Seoul, South Korea. "They were planning to combine state-of-the-art technologies with infectious-disease biology," Perrodon explains, adding that he immediately decided to get in touch with them.
"I Googled the institute, found a phone number and called reception there," he says. "The announcement was so new, they didn't know what I was talking about. The center didn't exist at that point. After about 50 phone calls, I managed to get the person who was to become the CEO of the Institut Pasteur Korea (IPK). He was excited about my profile."
For good reason. The ideal laboratory automation specialist to work in IPK's new state-of-the-art lab needed a few key qualities: a willingness to relocate, a familiarity with the Korean culture and language and the expected list of being highly educated, well recommended and experienced in laboratory automation. "I didn't really have to sell myself," Perrodon recalls. "They spent two hours explaining their projects." By September 2004, Perrodon signed a contract and traveled to Hamburg, Germany for training at Evotec Technologies (which was acquired by PerkinElmer in 2007), manufacturer of the ultra high-throughput (uHTP) screening system, known as EVOscreen, and the high content imaging reader, known as Opera, which were to be used at IPK.
Perrodon moved to Korea in November and recalls that his first few trips out on Seoul's winding maze of streets was confusing. "Korean cities don't have proper street names like in many other countries – and the only addresses that exist can only be interpreted by mail carriers. The first time I took a cab, it required me to tell the driver ‘turn left, turn right' to navigate where I wanted to go. It was helpful that I had learned these words in Korean as part of Taekwondo training years before."
Delving into a new corporate culture was another intimidating journey. "I was among the first employees at IPK. When I arrived, the lab hadn't been set up yet. We spent about a month working in a temporary room," Perrodon says. "The administrative staff was predominantly Korean and the research staff came in from around the world. There was a communications and cultural gap for a while," he acknowledges. "In many research companies, even when lab colleagues are within their native culture, lab and IT people sometimes don't seem to speak the same language. Something similar to that developed between the administrative staff and the researchers; it was kind of us versus them at first."
Fortunately this gap was bridged around IPK's first anniversary when Korean researchers joined the team. "Those researchers helped us to interpret the cultural differences," Perrodon continues. "Many foreigners who had come to work in this lab did not know much about Korean or Asian cultures. Most of them were good scientists – that's why they were hired – but they didn't know much about how to interact with Koreans." In the end the differences brought everyone closer.
"I often compare that start-up period in Korea to either being on the moon or as serving in a war!" Perrodon says, describing the unusual bond that developed between colleagues. "Our team started going out together, and we shared something special. Not everything was easy, but being together in this difficult situation brought us closer." Perrodon says that the experience in Korea ignited the interest he had in Asian culture from earlier in his life. After visiting friends in Singapore and Tokyo, he felt ready to explore further.
In 2007, Perrodon accepted a position with Eli Lilly and Company at the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery (LSCDD). "I was eager to get to know Asia better and focused on job opportunities in Japan and Singapore," Perrodon explains. "Because Singapore is an English-speaking country and is very open to the outside world, I quickly was offered a position there with Eli Lilly."
Perrodon settled quickly into Singapore's international atmosphere. He found that relationships didn't build around a life raft of common culture, but instead on how well one got along with another. He also described the scientific work culture in Singapore as more international with a certain American influence, "which I have to say I really enjoyed. Americans are very friendly and talk things out in a straight-to-the-point manner," he remarks, "which often makes solving issues in the lab easier."
An opportunity to work for the renowned Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in the old, university city of Basel, Switzerland presented itself in 2010. Perrodon took the position to be closer to home and family and to refine what he wanted to pursue next in Asia both personally and professionally.
After his experience in Singapore, Perrodon anticipated the move to Basel would have a similar international feel. Adjusting was actually more complicated. "Because Basel is close to the borders of Germany and France, 90 percent of my colleagues commuted back to those countries every evening. It made the work culture fairly unique, and I found it harder to manage than the one in Singapore," Perrodon says. He notes, too, that another part of the problem was having spent so much time away from Europe, he was more acclimated to Asian customs by that time and had to readjust his work style.
"In Asia, things are not expressed directly. If you are too loud, they will often bear with it, leave the room or politely suggest you move to another place that is more comfortable for you. I found that difficult at first, but people are always very friendly," Perrodon explains. "My French colleagues were very direct, and sometimes sarcastic. The first six months after returning to Europe, I was intimidated by them. I found myself turning more to Swiss and German colleagues because I found them more analytical in their approach."
Even a simple greeting could become a charged moment. At some point, he continues, one never really knows how to greet others when entering a room filled with people representing many nationalities.
"In Europe, with your friends you kiss each cheek or shake hands every time you meet each other, not just the first time you meet. Also a strong handshake is important to some French acquaintances. In an international setting, you will begin to have North American friends – who hug. It is something I was not familiar with, but got used to it over time. At first it looked like something from the movies!" Perrodon says, noting that Asians will bow or wave their hand at you.
"When I moved back to Europe, I had an old-school colleague from France and every morning we had this big handshake," says Perrodon. "Then one morning I arrived at work and in the office were five or six people chatting. My French colleague was closest to the door. I went in knowing I would be ready for that handshake. Then things started getting complicated. My boss at the time, also in the room, is a French woman. In France, shaking hands between men and women can make things very formal. It would be fine for a client-provider relationship, for instance, but doing so between colleagues would automatically create a certain distance. On the other hand, kissing on each cheek would have been terribly inappropriate because we're not friends. I suddenly realized that I didn't know any neutral way to greet my boss! In fact, I didn't know how to greet anyone at that point! I ended up just waving to them all!"
Even as he worked in Europe and during the three years he worked in Singapore, Perrodon continued to think about Japan. While in Singapore, he enrolled in evening Japanese language classes. "I progressively started thinking about getting a job in Japan, but this remained a vague wish as I quickly came to realize that it would be hard to do. It became clear that in order to work and fully appreciate living in Japan, properly speaking the language was important – and also lots of fun!" he explains.
After moving to Basel, he continued with plans to return to Tokyo one day. "I kept in contact with my friends in Tokyo, took Japanese evening classes at the Basel Volkshochschule and progressively started weaving a professional network in that region, preparing my move to Japan little by little." The language classes were particularly challenging as the Japanese language instruction in Basel was taught in German.
It was worth the effort. Perrodon's move to Japan was not the life upheaval that moving to Korea posed nine years earlier. "The difference is now I know what to expect and I am not jumping into the unknown," Perrodon says.
Before he found a job a month ago, his life in Tokyo was a simple, intense schedule. He spent six to eight hours a day in language classes at the Kai Japanese Language School, learning to read, write and speak Japanese. He would take what free time he had to enjoy the atmosphere of the traditional Japanese house in which his room is located – with its tatami mats, sliding doors and quaint paper windows – and the surrounding neighborhood, which is centrally located.
"Living abroad naturally makes one's life very rich and entertaining, but surprisingly I like staying at home and enjoying its comfort," he says.
No matter where he lives or travels, Perrodon spends his free time cementing friendships and engaging in active pursuits. He wisely alters these activities from one country to another to suit the native culture and his own desire to keep moving. During an internship in England, he developed a love for football (soccer). "We played almost every week and socialized afterward at the pub," he explains. "Football and wearing your team colors are important in England. I became a hardcore football fan!"
While Taekwondo training first ignited Perrodon's interest in Asia, he actually pursued other exercise while living in Korea. "I tried several Taekwondo schools while there, but found that I didn't like the training method they used," he says. Instead, he focused on running 10K races and dove into digital photography. "It was my first time being in a very different country, and digital cameras had recently become affordable," he explains. "I took pictures of everything. I also shot a lot of panoramic photos."
Blogging about his adventures to family and friends became another pastime. "At the time there was no Facebook. You had to call or find a way to have a website," Perrodon continues.
After moving to Switzerland, Taekwondo became important again. He added Hapkido, another Korean martial art, to his regimen. "And now that I am in Japan, I decided to try Karate and Aikido – Japanese variants of Taekwondo and Hapkido," Perrodon explains. "However I know I will regularly go back to Korean martial arts, which are the ones I know best. While I intentionally look for things out of my comfort zone, I don't want my life to be an entirely non-comfort zone. I need to preserve a few areas in which I can practice what I know. If I push it too much, I might reach a point in which I want to reject everything. Once in a while I want to go back to things that make me comfortable."
The more things change the more they stay the same, at least in terms of professional connections. In spite of juggling new cultures and new jobs, Perrodon has found a strong professional anchor in SLAS.
"The first time I discovered there was an organization for automation was in 2001, when I discovered the Laboratory Robotics Interest Group (LRIG). It became my preferred website because it had all the references and knowledge you could dream of!" As he became involved with LRIG, he discovered the Association for Laboratory Automation (now SLAS).
"What I like about SLAS is not only the resources, but feeling a part of the global community. Especially in my case where I have changed companies and countries regularly," says Perrodon, who, thanks to his knowledge of social media, contributed to the establishment and growth of the SLAS social media sites on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. He also contributed to a 2010 article, "Confocal-Based Method for Quantification of Diffusion Kinetics in Microwell Plates and Its Application for Identifying a Rapid Mixing Method for High-Content/Throughput Screening," that appeared in the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS), one of two SLAS peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Perrodon also enjoys receiving information about new products and procedures through SLAS social media. "It's a specialized network. I like being a part of this community and helping when I can," he says, adding that finding like minds in engineering and biology is important.
"It's knowing that whatever I do, wherever I go, I still have my family at home and SLAS to link me to the technical community," Perrodon concludes. "There are a lot of exchanges going on within the SLAS community."
June 3, 2013