Kalina Raskin: nature is our future

Photography : Jérôme Prévost - Text : Lucas Delattre
Kalina Raskin - BAT

An engineer in physics and chemistry, a doctor in biology, Kalina Raskin is the general manager of CEEBIOS, the Senlis-based European Center Of Excellence in Biomimicry, a research and education campus quite unique in the world, hosted by the city of Senlis in the « Quartier Ordener », a former military site, acquired by the municipality in 2013.

Biomimicry is both a dream for the future and a long-standing practice: reconciling nature and science. Making sure that research is inspired by the observation of the structures and processes developped by animal and vegetal ecosystems around us, and putting that knowledge to work for humanity’s and society’s well-being.

For Kalina Raskin, this twin passion for science and nature comes from afar. Born in Bulgaria, she keeps from her country of origin the memory of summer vacations in the family home « in a remote village like you can’t find in France anymore », with « entire days spent in the fields and the forests ». She also remembers her relatives’ passion for sciences : her grandfather was a medical doctor ; her grandmother a mathematics teacher; her two cousins, who later became a physicist and a mathematician,  spent their free time, as children, doing exercises from the international mathematics Olympiads’ reference book while Kalina escaped to play. Her scientific calling was also encouraged by the French side of her family (Raskin is a name originating from the northern part of France) : « my father has always been passionate about science, he very early had me reading articles, watching reports, and turning over the stones in the forest to observe the fauna underneath ».

Many years later, as a student in the Higher School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry of Paris, Kalina presented a doctoral thesis in neuro-sciences, devoted to exploring the sexual differentiation of the brain in mice. From there on, she could have followed up with a career in scientific research but in the meantime, she had built an interest for biomimicry, sustainable innovation, and the multiple disciplines which feed into this intellectual pursuit. So she decided to take the plunge, embrace a new adventure closest to what she calls « the specifications of life » and seized the opportunity to participate in the launch of CEEBIOS, of which she became the first employee.

Since then, in only three years, CEEBIOS has grown well. Admittedly, Germany is fifteen years ahead of other European countries in the field of biomimicry ; admittedly again, the United States, and notably the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, have considerably more ressources. But CEEBIOS has managed to find its place.

Tens of representatives of the worldwide scientific and industrial community interested in biomimicry have come there already. The project today counts a staff of ten and has garnered support from major figures, like Gilles Bœuf, the former president of the National Museum for Natural History, which was CEEBIOS’ first president, or his successor, Antonio Molina, head of the innovation cluster Matikem. Twelve large industrial groups, from L’Oréal to Arcelor Mittal, LVMH to Air Liquide, are active members. The ministry of ecology, the regional governments of Hauts-de-France and Nouvelle Aquitaine regions support the project. Twelve organisations are already established on-site, accounting for a hundred and fifty jobs.

Of course, nothing is ever won in anticipation. Biomimicry is still an emergent approach, still considered questionable by some, as the method is so novel, so disturbing for the supporters of « all-technology » or those who regard environmental protection as a burdensome constraint, a hare-brained militant idea. Kalin Raskin, for her part, has chosen to take action: « it is not a soft bucolic utopia, it is a return to basics » ; it is about meeting overwhelming societal challenges « in a framework more conscious of the limits of the biosphere », « producing renewable and clean energies, sequestering CO2, producing eco-materials in soft conditions, depolluting the soils, rethinking our buildings, our cities, our agriculture, and even our economy. »

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