Romain Fardel: “He’s Great at What He Does”

To say the Arnold Group has benefitted from Romain Fardel’s arrival would be an understatement. Romain, a chemical engineer by training, came to Craig Arnold’s group in 2009 with the intent of doing a one-year post doc in laser processing. Seven years later, Fardel, now a Professional Specialist in the Arnold Group, has impacted every aspect of it.

Craig Arnold agrees: “It wasn’t long before it was very clear to me the kind of person Romain is. He knows how to organize and how to run the show. And I never realized how much I needed that until after he was here.”

“Romain just naturally stepped into the role of adviser, mentor and friend. All of the things that I was trying to get across to the group were amplified with Romain’s help.”

Fardel, a native of Novalles, Switzerland, fell in love with chemistry early: “I liked mixing liquids; it was a very primal thing, you know, splashing around and seeing what would happen. I also read books about chemistry, and by about fifth grade, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

As a student at EPFL, he realized certain aspects of chemistry were more appealing to him than others. “I was drawn to physical chemistry, and physical chemistry led to lasers and spectroscopy, how light is reflected, transmitted or absorbed and using that to infer properties of the matter. The light-matter interaction fascinated me.”

Romain then began to work with solar cells and lasers; lasers could track the speed of competing processes in a solar cell to understand how efficiently electricity is created. Using a spectrometer, he would measure the light intensity at a given wavelength and track data points in time to figure out how fast the processes happened. “I liked it because it involved solar cells, and harvesting energy was a hot topic. And the laser we were working with was shooting a beautiful green light. I liked it visually, too.”

Romain got his MSc in Chemical and Biological Engineering at EPFL before working in electrochemistry at BASF in Germany, the world’s largest integrated chemical complex. He then got his PhD in Chemistry from ETH Zurich, where he studied microfabrication using laser ablation. Romain thought an industry job in Switzerland was next, but luckily, Craig Arnold had other ideas.

“Craig had come to visit us two years before, and he said, ‘When you’re done, you can come do a post-doc for me at Princeton,’ and while I was flattered by the offer, I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted to do. But at my defense, one of my examiners said ‘I’ll kick you in the butt if you don’t stay in academia,’ because he liked what I did and thought it would be a waste.”

Romain’s work was more than liked by his examiners, as he was awarded both the ETH Zurich Medal for his dissertation and the Best Presentation Award from the European Materials Research Society.

“The more I thought about the opportunity to go abroad and work at Princeton, the more it made sense to me. So when Craig renewed his offer, I planned to come for one year.”

Then something astonishing happened.

“Within a month of arriving on campus, I met my wife, Liza, and that changed everything.”

That fortuitous event may have changed the Arnold Group in significant ways, too.

“When I first arrived, Craig told me, ‘It’s up to you to step up to anything you feel comfortable doing.’ So I did. I looked after equipment, made sure safety protocols were being followed and helped people.”

Each year, Romain got involved in more aspects of mentoring, overseeing research, advising and managing the lab in the Arnold Group. He and Craig even co-taught a freshman seminar on renewable energy technology. Romain’s penchant for logistics and infrastructure complemented Craig’s big picture creativity.

It wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, ‘Romain’s going to do all of this stuff.’ It was a few years of Romain constantly stepping up and just doing all of these things.”

Romain met with new students to help them acclimate to the group and met with post-docs before they left to ensure their work wasn’t lost. He redesigned the Arnold Group’s website and worked closely with the architectural team who renovated its lab.

But Romain is most proud of the way he’s supported Craig in running the group more collaboratively.

“We’re a bit more connected and more organized. Before, everyone was working on his or her project with Craig, and it was sometimes hard to have direct access to him all the time. I became an intermediary that students could come see to help speed things up a bit.”

Craig Arnold would go further: “In a group setting, like a research group, you need a team, you need all types. And to have an effective manager who can lead the students, who the students look up to and respect, that’s so important. There are very few people you can really trust and delegate to who will never let you down, and Romain is one of those people. He’ll never let anyone down. He’s not capable of it. He’s enabled me to take on more things because he’s someone I can rely on.”

Because Romain is so adept at stepping up and helping, he often finds himself running in several different directions on any given day.

“I enjoy the variety of my day, but my favorite part of working at Princeton is the interaction with people; when they can learn something new, or get better at something or do something on their own.”

Among other things, Romain is currently contributing his knowledge of materials processing to a project with the Rand Group in Electrical Engineering. They are working to develop a flexible, transparent electrode.

“It looks like a piece of plastic that you can bend, but it’s conductive and you can use it as a building block for a solar cell or a screen.” This research has implications for wearable electronics, like a wearable keyboard or computer screen that runs the length of your arm or a piece of paper you could take out of your pocket, unfold and use like an iPad.

Fardel is motivated by making advances that translate to everyday life, but every day, he impacts the lives of those with whom he works in the Arnold Group.

Arnold agrees: “When students who leave here think of their time in our group, they’re going to think about Romain and how much he helped them. There’s great value in that.”

It’s clear that Romain is an essential component of the success and continued growth of the Arnold Group.

“What you learn in this job is that your ability to accomplish things really scales with the people you have around you. Romain’s great at what he does. I just hope he knows how much I appreciate and respect him. I say it time and time again, and I mean it every time. It’s not like he surprises me. He’s just that good.”


~Patricia Kennedy