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French student earns ME degree

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 11 - November 7, 1996

When Martial Haeffelin successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation in August, he was also the first student at Virginia Tech to do so according to French rules, says Bob Mahan, professor of mechanical engineering.

Haeffelin defended two doctorates: one from Virginia Tech in mechanical engineering (radiation sciences), and one from the Université de Lille (France) in atmospheric physics. His dissertation is based on work done in both countries. Three of the six members of his advisory committee are from France.

Under French rules, the student's Ph.D. defense is open to the public, in addition to his fellow graduate students and other faculty members. Haeffelin's friends and family attended-his father, Philippe P.M. Haeffelin, traveling from Paris, and his aunt and uncle, Francoise and Roger Cestac, from New York City.

Haeffelin earned his undergraduate degree from the Université de Technologie de Compiègne (UTC) in chemical engineering, completing that degree while starting his master's degree at Virginia Tech as an exchange student from UTC, which seeks international experiences for its students. The exchange program allows the student to complete their undergraduate degree in the United States while starting a master's degree.

Haeffelin began his studies in America in August of 1991 and completed his master's in mechanical engineering two years later.

He returned to France to begin work on a doctorate at the Université de Lille and to satisfy his military service by working at the Office National d'Etude et de Recherche Aerospatiale (ONERA)-a national research institute similar to NASA.

Haeffelin says that when he had completed his master's degree, he was eager to return to France. "After two years in the U.S., I was ready to go back to France."

But the Paris native found he missed Blacksburg. "I enjoy the outdoors, and I found I missed that about Blacksburg-the nearness of hiking and skiing. Although I enjoy socializing, I also enjoy the quietness of this area."

Haeffelin returned to the United States in November 1995 to write his dissertation while working as a graduate research assistant at Virginia Tech. He studied the ability of modern space-borne instrumentation to measure the heat radiated from the Earth.

"Martial has pioneered ways to make the measurements give up additional information," Mahan said.

Haeffelin worked in the Thermal Radiation Group in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech under Mahan's direction, and in two labs in France: the Laboratoire d'Optique Atmospherique at the Université de Lille, and the Laboratoire de Meteorologie Dynamique at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

Haeffelin says he was "culturally motivated" to come to the United States in the first place, and after six months in England, wanted to speak more English. The UTC-Virginia Tech exchange program "was a great opportunity to study abroad."

Now, speaking English with almost no French accent and even a little bit of a Virginia accent, Haeffelin says he plans to remain in the United States States because of the opportunities in his field. He will work as a post-doctoral student at NASA-Langley, and expects to have the opportunity to teach at one of the many universities in Virginia's tidewater area.

"I became interested in an academic career and U.S. universities give beginning faculty members more responsibility and respect than French universities."

The Virginia Tech-UTC exchange program began more than a decade ago when Mahan made friends at the French university while studying in that country.

"It's very easy to get French students to come to graduate school at Virginia Tech," Mahan said. "The degree is well-respected. They are more linguistically able and more open to the world than our students. And because we know they are good students (by the time they have reached their fifth year in the highly selective French university system), we give them assistantships, so there is economic incentive.

Tech students pay the tuition in France, which is less than $200 per year, and receive a travel scholarship from Michelin Tire Co. A French-based company, Michelin, is interested in training engineers who are bilingual, Mahan said.