There was a time when Ahcène Bounceur played three different musical instruments, wrote his own tunes, drew, designed three-dimensional computer graphics, and played sports. No more: Bounceur, a 30-year-old mathematician from Algeria who is also a member of Algeria's Berber cultural minority, renounced such trivial pursuits when he came to France as a master's graduate in operations research--a discipline that blends mathematics and statistics with computer science to pursue optimal solutions to complex problems--seeking better opportunities. "During [the past] 5 years, all I've been doing was working, reading, and programming," Bounceur says.
One senses that for Bounceur, hard work is a self-conscious strategy, a way of staying focussed on essential challenges instead of being sidetracked by less important issues, such as perceived slights that may have resulted from his national and ethnic heritage. According to Emmanuel Simeu, one of Bounceur's two supervisors at the Techniques of Informatics and Microelectronics for Computer Architecture (TIMA) laboratory in Grenoble, France, Bounceur's is a good approach. For young scientists belonging to an ethnic minority in France, "everything is possible," Simeu writes in an e-mail. "But you just need to work very hard at each step of your career." Whatever the reason, Bounceur reports few negative experiences.
Leaving Algeria for France
Bounceur is Berber, a population indigenous to North Africa west of the Nile valley. Whereas most Algerians are Berber in origin, the majority speak Arabic and self-identify as Arabs. Bounceur had to deal with what felt at the time like some of the consequences of being an ethnic minority when politics stalled his studies while he was still at high school. In Algeria, although Berber is now recognised as a national language like Arabic, it is not yet official and cannot be used in schools, for example. So in 1994--the final year of his high school studies--the Berber community staged a boycott. "We were asked not to go to school [in order] to put pressure on the state so that we could study the Berber language," Bounceur says.
The protest ultimately failed--no changes were made in the curriculum--but Bounceur used his time well. During his year off, he studied for a computer-programming diploma at a private high school. Then, back at his public high school, he finished his A-levels and entered a 5-year ingénieur degree (equivalent to a master's degree) at the University of Bejaia in 1997. And recently, the Algerian government has begun allowing Berber to be taught in schools.
Upon graduating in 2002, Bounceur left Algeria for France. The French government was giving visas more easily than before, so Bounceur saw it as a "now or never" opportunity, as he puts it. Once there, it wasn't difficult for him to find a place to study. There are so many opportunities in France, Bounceur says, that if you are motivated "you can go wherever you want to go." He joined the École Nationale Supérieure d’Informatique et de Mathématiques Appliquées de Grenoble to do a Diplôme d'Etudes Approfondies (equivalent to another master's degree) in mathematics and computer science with a major in operations research and optimisation.
Bounceur feared that finding a lab for his master's research project would prove trickier as a result of the normal consequences of being an immigrant. "When you're new here, you don't know many places," he says. When Emmanuel Simeu and Salvador Mir of the TIMA laboratory in Grenoble--a joint department of the Joseph Fourier University, Grenoble Institute of Technology, and the French national research agency, CNRS--advertised a project he liked, he was the first to apply. He had the appropriate credentials. But he stood out from his peers thanks to his "excellent motivation and presentation of himself," Mir, his second supervisor, writes in an e-mail. He got the position.
Bounceur worked to develop new tools to be used in designing the “systems-on-chips” commonly found in telecommunication devices. His aim was to ensure that all the various microelectronic circuits function as planned once the chips are produced. This involved inventing mathematical and statistical techniques that can be used to predict how the electronics components will behave in the chip, and evaluating the robustness of existing tests. Bounceur then wrote the code to incorporate the new instructions into the software used to design the chips. The work required Bounceur to juggle mathematics, statistics, operations research, computer science, and electronics.
Meanwhile, Bounceur was trying to balance his professional challenges with starting his new life in France. "The first year is the most critical in France. It isn't even courage [you need]; it's faith," Bounceur says. One major problem was making ends meet. Although he was from a privileged background in Algeria, he had decided to gain his independence once in France. For the first 6 months, he worked as a night watchman in his university hall while studying during the day.
Bounceur also had to adapt to a new cultural context, with the added difficulty that the two countries share a sensitive past that makes prejudices and misunderstandings common. With time, one learns to understand the local customs and mindset, he says. "There are some gestures a French person can do that are bad form" in Algeria. "If one understands that this is a question of a different education," it's no big deal. Reciprocally, he learned how local people might interpret and react to his own behaviour. "The first year, you need to be very much supported," as changing culture is taxing, Bounceur says.
As a scientist with a different cultural identity, Bounceur also felt compelled to prove himself more in the laboratory. Determined to stay on for a Ph.D. after his master's project, he slept only a couple of hours a day so that he could do extra work and make a good impression.
In 2003, with money from a European grant, Mir and Simeu offered Bounceur the opportunity to turn his master's project into a doctorate. Again, during his Ph.D., Bounceur made sure to work as hard as possible. In addition to his research, he taught more than 170 hours' worth of computer programming classes to master's students and later put the material he produced into a book. He also turned his hand to mentoring, co-supervising three master's students the last 2 years of his Ph.D.
"His hard work has allowed him to develop new tools and methodologies that are beyond the capabilities of most Ph.D. students," Mir says. When he finished his doctorate in 2006, Bounceur won third place in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Test Technology Technical Council competition. Companies were showing interest in the new tools, so Bounceur decided to stay at TIMA for a 1-year postdoc to investigate the commercial potential of his research. Bounceur's contract has now been renewed as an attaché temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche , which allows him to continue his research part time while teaching.
Bounceur has worked very hard, and French politics and bureaucracy have sometimes made his life a little more difficult than it might have been. Yet he feels his cultural identity has not caused any real hardships or put any of his professional goals out of reach. Mir, a Spanish national, concurs with Bounceur's view that foreigners face few additional challenges in developing a research career in France. All that counts are their abilities, he says. Young scientists "should look at the fact that they belong to an ethnic minority as a cultural fact, but with no impact [on] their future, which just depends on their own skills."
Yet Cameroon-born Simeu believes that there are some obvious disadvantages for foreigners. One big issue is that, as in other sectors, "university and research lab employers generally prefer French-citizen candidates, perhaps because their recruitment is administratively more easy," he says. He also believes that the need for visas to travel to most countries and other administrative proceedings all constitute additional barriers on Bounceur's career path.
For his part, Bounceur is determined to remain positive--and he has good reason to. He is aware of the tensions between Algerian and French people outside of the privileged world of research departments, but he has decided not to let them affect him. "Sometimes, there are some behaviours outside of work, where you pass next to someone, and they don't say 'hello.' You have to take this as a characteristic of the person themselves" rather than falling into any cultural trap. "Maybe there are some problems with job positions, or negative views about Arab people, or foreigners who behave as if they think that France is a racist country," Bounceur says. But, he says, "we have to be an example, and not judge or generalise."
Photo (middle): courtesy of Ahcène Bounceur
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.
Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.