’My job as a professor keeps me forever a student’

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Jean-Philippe Brantut, winner of the 2023 best teacher award for the physics sec
Jean-Philippe Brantut, winner of the 2023 best teacher award for the physics section - 2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0
Jean-Philippe Brantut comes to his lab with a new idea just about every week. But what he encourages his students to do is just the opposite - rather than bounce around, he wants them to dig deep into a single topic.

"EPFL students like a challenge and they like learning hard things," says Brantut, winner of the 2023 best teacher award for the physics section. "If a class gives them a headache, it’s a good sign! For me that’s perfect, since I teach a particularly headache-inducing subject." It would seem that Brantut, an associate professor and the head of the Laboratory for Quantum Gases (LQG), is adept at making hard things seem simple: "The classes I get the best evaluations for are usually those in which I attempt to explain complicated material," he says.

Given all that, you would think that Brantut was born with a physics textbook tucked under his arm. Not quite. First he studied engineering at CentraleSupélec, near Paris, where his curriculum included "just a little" physics - yet enough for him to become enamored with the subject. He then signed up for night classes in physics at another university.

A few years later, when Brantut had to choose a topic for his PhD, he got the chance to attend a talk given by Alain Aspect - the scientist who went on to jointly win the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum physics. Brantut was mesmerized by Aspect’s presentation: "I contacted him immediately afterwards, and he let me join his research group." Over the 15 years that followed, Brantut made his own name for himself in the field of quantum physics. In particular, his work on cold-atom gases and quantum simulations - through experiments that involved innovative instruments - propelled him to the forefront of research on ultra-cold atoms in optical cavities. He recently won the 2023 Latsis Prize for his groundbreaking discoveries.

Do as I say, not as I do

Brantut was appointed as the head of LQG in September 2016. He feels that working at EPFL "is a huge privilege for a researcher, in terms of both the freedom we’re given and the financial resources we have available," he says. The only constraint is the teaching. "But if I have to do it, I might as well do it right!" he says. And true to form, he takes this responsibility seriously. "To every student who fails an exam, I owe it to them to be able to look them in the eye and know I did everything I could to help them." Yet there’s more to it than that. "In research, sometimes you fail and sometimes you succeed," he says. "But teaching is always gratifying, even when you make mistakes."

A firm believer in the old adage that the best classes are those you would have liked to have taken when you were a student, Brantut uses an approach that "combines old-school methods with modern tools." Specifically, "I create digital copies of the blackboard so that students can listen to what I’m saying without having to worry about taking notes." He also films videos that students can watch before they come to class so they’re fully prepared. "That way, we can focus on specific topics during class and delve into the most important concepts." This method gets right to the heart of Brantut’s teaching style. "Instead of bouncing from one topic to the next, I believe it’s more helpful for students to explore a single concept fully, taking the time they need to really concentrate on a problem," he explains.

"In short, I ask my students to do as I say, not as I do - at least as far as my research is concerned," Brantut says. "That’s because I tend come into work on Mondays with a new idea to explore." He goes on to admit that "I’m not the kind of person who can stay focused on just one thing."

A second quantum revolution

Brantut believes that his primary duty as a physics professor is to help prepare the next generation of engineers for the second quantum revolution. To that end, he’s been making substantial changes to his class curriculum, learning objectives and teaching methods over the past few years.

He also finds that "teaching helps me identify gaps in my own knowledge as a researcher, and pushes me to correct them." It was only when Brantut began the task of preparing his lectures that he realized "the full extent of everything I didn’t know - even though I’d been an atomic physicist for over 15 years." He adds: "Come to think of it, my job as a professor keeps me forever a student - and I get paid for it!"