Académie des technologies

Amandine CUENCA

  • Researcher and Manager of a research team in physical chemistry and robotics / Research & Innovation Laboratory Manager
  • Syensqo
  • 38 years old
  • Sponsored by Patrick MAESTRO in 2024

Why a career in tech?

As a child, I loved to observe nature. Butterflies for example, their lightness intrigued me, what were they made of? How would they set their great wings in motion? How could they be so beautifully colored? I think my interest in chemistry goes back to the day I realized that all matter is made up of atoms in Mendeleev's table. The world was right in front of me. I questioned myself for a long time. I could recognize iron, silver, gold; consider the composition of small molecules such as oxygen or water, but what about flowers, animals, the human body? Go to the heart of matter, understand the complex assembly of atoms in a molecule and the role it plays through this organization is what still arouses my curiosity as a researcher today.

Your professional experience?

My background is in physical chemistry. At the end of two years of preparatory classes for the Grandes Ecoles, I joined the École Nationale Supérieure d'Ingénieurs de Chimie et Physique de Bordeaux (now ENSMAC) and then completed my studies with a CNRS/Solvay PhD on the rheology of complex fluid flows at the sub-micron scale.

Your first experience with technology?

I joined the Solvay Group in 2012 as a research engineer at the Laboratory of the Future in Bordeaux. In this position for 6 years, I developed foaming formulations for enhanced oil recovery. This research was fulfilling: I was required to publish and present my research work at international conferences and promote Solvay's expertise to potential customers. Working in collaboration with experts from the French Institute of Petroleum and New Energies (IFPEN) and oil companies in North America and the Middle East was particularly rewarding. I then seized the opportunity of a 3-year expatriation in the United States, within Solvay US as manager of an Automation and Robotics team. I developed skills that were essential to my career, both in science and in human relationships.

What do you do today, and why?

Since my return to France, at the Laboratory of the Future, I have been a team manager. On a daily basis, I orchestrate the work of about thirty researchers in Physical Chemistry and Automation & Robotics. My current work can be part of a societal approach to reduce our carbon footprint. Solvay has made an ambitious commitment to this goal by 2030. As a player in the group's innovation, our team is involved in a dual ecological and digital transition. We are working to optimize the performance of materials for batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, for example, or to position bio-based, biodegradable and biocompatible products in various formulations, such as shampoos, agrochemical formulations, or paints. On the other hand, the automation and robotics aspect of my job is exciting. I am convinced that the rise of artificial intelligence is an incredible asset for us research chemists. I see a lot of potential in decision-making algorithms, which come from cognitive science research. We interact with experts in the field on a daily basis and improve these tools. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is, I think, its interdisciplinarity and thus in the interdependence of our successes.

Your strengths in this role?

I would say that I quickly identify the challenges that need to be overcome and that I know how to define the trajectory that leads to the goal. The next step is to synchronize everyone's skills. Managing is a difficult position, in which I have to reconcile scientific skills and the management of human skills. As a researcher, I always work with passion, which is, I think, my greatest asset.

Past challenges, failures and disappointments?

Learning is like climbing a flight of stairs. Climbing a step takes effort, sometimes you have to be stubborn and of course, I have fallen some times. At the age of 19, I got an eliminatory mark in the oral English of the Petites Mines d'Albi exam. My teacher at the time told me, "Speaking English can't be an obstacle when you're otherwise able to memorize multiple mathematical proofs." She convinced me to go to the language immersion stage in England. It changed everything for me. Thanks to the theatre workshops and the complicity of other foreign students, I gained self-confidence. It's an experience I like to share with students who are facing similar challenges. Don't give up, constantly reinvent yourself.

Best moments, successes you’re proud of?

The day I obtained my PhD is a special memory, of course, but the most rewarding moment of my career is undoubtedly my expatriation in the United States. First, I had to convince my husband to quit his job, sell our house and leave with our 18-month-old daughter. A real challenge ! On the plane, I still had a feeling of vertigo but our installation went well. My husband got an American contract with his French company and the adventure began. I took on the role of manager of the Automation and Robotics team, made up of 4 people and launched the activity in 2 research centers in the US. This experience changed me. It allowed me to take a step back from our culture and our society. The U.S. is a model of diversity and inclusion that I find meaningful. Finally, this year, I was congratulated for presenting the work of our team in 3 conferences on the theme of the orchestrated laboratory: robotics and artificial intelligence at the service of innovation in chemistry. The recognition of my peers, eminent researchers, who have been scientific directors of Solvay, the CNRS, Nobel Prize in Chemistry or Fields Medalists in mathematics is the best reward for my team and I.

People who helped, influenced -or made your life difficult?

I will always be grateful to my thesis supervisors, academic and industrial who have been enormously involved in my progress. In fact, I keep applying their method: setting clear expectations about the next step to take, without considering that I might not be able to do it. But I can't give an account of all the many people who helped me. I enjoy working with experts. Every encounter is a learning opportunity.

Your hopes and future challenges?

To continue my mission: to work at the heart of the evolution of our societies. To be an actor in the digital and sustainable transformation of our research and our industry and why not promote the place of women within Tech!

What do you do when you don’t work?

I would answer that since the birth of my children, it has been more about resource activities than hobbies: finding a way to escape in a very short time. I play sports. It's a good stress regulator. I have been swimming and Pilates for many years. I also have a great sensitivity for art. Meeting artists who live their passion: it's inspiring! At museums, opera houses or exhibitions in jewelry and haute-couture workshops; I'm amazed. I also like to spend time in other countries, again to meet a new culture. My sister lives in Denmark. I look forward to every visit.

Your heroes -from History or fiction?

I had the chance to participate in the presentation of the Solvay Prize for the Science of the Future in 2022. The winner, Prof. Katalin Karikó, explained her journey, strewn with pitfalls. His scientific belief was that messenger RNA had great potential for therapeutic applications. She has since been awarded the Nobel Prize for the development of the Covid-19 vaccine and the hope of a cancer treatment that messenger RNA now represents When she finished her speech, I had tears in my eyes. His perseverance commanded admiration. She sent messages for young researchers, which still resonate with me today: 1) work with conviction, 2) collaborate without borders, 3) read: a large part of the questions you ask yourself have been studied by other researchers, go in search of "nugget" articles, 4) don't think that everything is easy in the world of academic research. You have a role to play in industry as well.

A saying or proverb you like in particular?

Albert Einstein: "It is the essential role of the teacher to awaken the joy of working and knowing". Once again, I am very grateful for the education and awareness that I have been able to benefit from and that I am trying to pass on in turn.

A book to take with you on a desert island?

I read Le Monde's newspaper every day. I would keep this habit to feel connected to the world.

A message to young female professionals?

The advice of Katalin Karikó, an example for any young woman scientist, seems to me to be the right one. And perhaps to conclude, I would return to the butterfly, an essential link in biodiversity whose impoverishment worries me. It is possible to be a research engineer in chemistry, to be a woman and to give meaning to your mission. So my message is: Tech and its industry are shaping today'sand tomorrow’s world. If you can, become an actor in its sustainable development and transformation to achieve the carbon neutrality objectives, which are essential for humanity. Because the research effort required is unprecedented. Our CEO puts it this way: as a chemist, but also as a citizen, we are part of the problem and part of the solution.


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.

Emilie Du Chatelet

Woman of letters, mathematician and physicist

1706 - 1749