The questionnaire answered by the Women of Tech is a variant of the Proust questionnaire, named not because Marcel Proust got lost in the Paris metro, but in memory of Emilie du Chatelet, a woman of letters, mathematician and physicist, renowned for her translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica and the dissemination of Leibniz's physics work. She was a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Bologna Institute. Emilie du Chatelet led a free and fulfilled life during the era of the Enlightenment and published a speech on happiness.
Why a career in tech?
I have been fascinated by physics since I was a teenager. Discovering that one can describe the world in an elegant way, make sense of one's intuitions and predict what one observes with precision, was a revelation for me. Today, I particularly enjoy the multidisciplinary aspect of my work, at the interface between physics, electronics, materials science, computer science and neuroscience. There is so much to learn and imagine in this field that one never get bored.
Your professional experience?
I did a Bachelor in Fundamental Physics at Orsay, the current Paris Saclay University. I did my Master at the University of Cambridge in the UK and then came back to Saclay for my PhD. I then worked in the United States, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Since 2018, I am a researcher at Thales Research & Technology, in the CNRS/Thales joint lab. This career path has allowed me to discover other cultures and create international connections, which has brought me a lot of personal and professional benefits. My only regret would be not to have done more multidisciplinary studies, which is difficult in France.
Your first experience with technology?
My first professional experience was my work at the CNRS/Thales laboratory during my PhD. It was there that I discovered the actual job of being a researcher and all its facets, which is quite far from the vision the general public has. Beyond the scientific core of the job, there is a whole range of skills to acquire: teamwork, project management, communication, etc. Recently, I have started to supervise people and coordinate international projects: a new experience and adventure.
What do you do today, and why?
I work on neuromorphic computing. Which means that I am looking to design new types of computers, inspired by our brain. More specifically, I am studying how nanotechnology can implement artificial neurons. This would reduce the energy consumption of artificial intelligence. Beyond this important application, it is above all an exciting intellectual challenge
Your strengths in this role?
Of course, for my job, one needs a very strong scientific background. I think my most important scientific assets are my ability to abstract, my deep understanding of a topic and my ability to see how to demonstrate something. Beyond that, I think my soft skills are paramount to my professional success. I like to communicate about my work and do it well, regardless of the audience, expert or general public. In addition, I like to work in a team and collaborate; I know how to create the human connections that make it possible to achieve great things together.
Past challenges, failures and disappointments?
To be a researcher, you have to be psychologically resilient. Indeed, the vast majority of the time in research, what you are trying to do does not work. And when you finally succeed, you have to move on to the next step. Each of my key results has taken several years of failure. Then, you have to convince the scientific community, as well as the general public, of the interest of the results obtained. During my PhD, some of my papers were rejected many times by scientific journals before being published. This was very difficult to experience, but it taught me to see the value of my work for myself, and not to wait for external validation. This quality of resilience is also essential to survive as a woman in tech!
Best moments, successes you’re proud of?
Going to university rather than engineering school was a brave choice, one that many tried to steer me away from, and probably what I am most proud of in my career. It was a wonderful, research-oriented education with passionate students and teachers. During my PhD, when I had my main experimental result, it was a wonderful moment. The experiment I was trying to do had been failing for two years. I am very proud of myself for trying so hard. Right now I’m particularly proud of the scientific perspective I've been able to gain on my research topic and my ability to convey that vision to others, whether it's the general public, my scientific community, or the people I mentor.
People who helped, influenced -or made your life difficult?
Unfortunately, my professional environment is still very misogynistic and episodes of sexist and sexual harassment are a reality of the profession. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be trained and supported by extraordinary people, Julie Grollier and Damien Querlioz, who supervised my PhD and taught me everything about the profession. They are still important advisors and friends for me. My boss in the US Mark Stiles and my current manager Paolo Bortolotti are also precious supports, who gave me opportunities and always put me forward.
Your hopes and future challenges?
On the scientific side, I have two major upcoming challenges. One is rather fundamental and concerns the use of physics to create an artificial neural network capable of learning by itself, like our brain. The other is more applied and concerns the realization of a microelectronic chip that would demonstrate the industrial potential of the systems I study. On the human side, my current challenge is about mentoring and community organization in our team.
What do you do when you don’t work?
I spend a lot of time talking with my close friends, especially about psychology. I draw and do traditional Chinese painting. Recently, I started creative writing. I play the piano. I think many researchers are also artists because there is a strong creative dimension to our work.
Your heroes -from History or fiction?
Growing up I didn't have any heroines because there were no female role models, I'm glad to see that there are more and more children's books on this subject. Today I am more critical of the concept of heroes/heroines. Especially in science, it is not a good representation of reality. I would prefer a revaluation of teamwork, collaborations and complementarities. Rather than looking for who is going to be a hero, I prefer to think about what conditions and structures allow great advances.
A saying or proverb you like in particular?
I wish I had a fancy motto to give you, preferably in a dead language, but I don't. However, my main guideline is to always want to develop and surpass myself, as well as to help others to do so.
A book to take with you on a desert island?
My first reaction was to answer A la recherche du temps perdu, if you can take a series with you, and Le côté de Guermantes if you need a single book. One can reread this work many times and still find different things in it. But honestly, given my life expectancy on a desert island, I think a short story by Renée Vivien would be enough.
A message to young female professionals?
Young women are often advised to be confident, but I find that this can quickly become a guilt-inducing injunction: not only are you not confident, but you feel ashamed of yourself because of it. So I would advise young women not to blame themselves if they don't have confidence. This lack of confidence is socially constructed. Learn about history, how gender differences have been constructed in our culture: they have been thought of in different ways throughout history and are arbitrary. For example, look at the history of computer science, which was considered a female discipline until it became prestigious and was therefore considered a male field. By understanding how your insecurities were instilled in you, you will be better able to combat them.