This month EPWS gives the floor to Adèle Peugeot, who works as a PhD student in Chemistry on the development of artificial photosynthesis technologies at Collège de France, Paris. She is running the EPWS Facebook group.
EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
I have always had a deep interest in science, and I have always loved studying complex subjects in details. Looking for solutions to unsolved issues is a great challenge and an amazing opportunity to learn. My mother, who is a professor in biology in Paris, had a great role in my choice of becoming a scientist as she always liked to share her interest for science and her rigor with me. Moreover, I discovered very early the great role of science in the development of solutions to make our world more sustainable and mitigate global warming. I was particularly interested in innovative and clean ways of producing and storing energies. The development of such technologies is addressed by material chemists, who design new materials, which are key elements in technologies such as solar panels or hydrogen vehicles. Moreover, I am passionate about a scientific approach called biomimicry. This consists in taking inspiration from nature, to produce industrially relevant technologies. Nature has optimized its systems in order to make them energy efficient and sustainable, thus it is an incredible source of inspiration to develop competitive, long-lasting and cheap solutions.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
I am currently carrying out a project in Collège de France, in Paris, in collaboration with the company Total. My project gathers my two objectives: developing sustainable ways of producing and storing energies and taking inspiration from nature. I am developing a system that mimics plants to perform artificial photosynthesis. This system can be described as an artificial leaf. It is fed with water and CO2, the major source greenhouse gas emitted in our atmosphere. When powered by a photovoltaic cell, this leaf transforms CO2 and water into oxygen and fuels.
I believe that this technology is of great importance for the future of our society for two reasons. First, it produces fuels such as hydrocarbons or alcohols, which can be stored easily and replace petroleum-based fuels in our current industries and vehicles. Moreover, it uses CO2 as a source of carbon and values it. Imagine a very polluting industry, such as a cement or a steel plant (manufacturing and construction industries are responsible for 20% of our global CO2 emissions). If the emissions of these factories were captured and transformed to fuels or valuable chemicals, then these new sources of energies could replace fossil fuels, and lead to a closed carbon cycle with zero net CO2 emissions.
EPWS: What are your projects for when you will have defended your PhD? Do you intend to stay in academia? Why ?
My project falls in the larger domain of Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technologies. Several companies, such as Total, show an increasing interest in CCUS. My objective is to keep focusing on these technologies at the industrial scale. Indeed, I believe that energy companies, which are the most polluting ones, are also our best hope for a transition toward renewable energies. They urgently need a shift in their activities and they must develop less polluting energies. Their financial levers and interests in undertaking a transition are a great opportunity to pave the way for new sustainable and innovative ways of producing, storing and selling energies. I aspire to become part of this global change, and I want to use my scientific knowledge of the technologies to help industries get rid of fossil fuel-based energies.
EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?
I have mostly been studying in France, where I did both academic research and industrial Research & Development. I spent six months in Cambridge University, in the UK, where I developed an organic lighting device. This was an incredible experience, because I discovered the large cultural diversity and open-mindedness of scientific research. I also learnt a lot about experimental chemistry thanks to an inspiring supervisor who taught me chemistry but also self-confidence.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
The lockdown due to Covid-19 was a forced pause in my research considering that most of my work is experimental. I will take advantage of the year I have ahead to develop new catalysts to perform the transformation of water and CO2 into valuable chemicals and oxygen. I am also attending a management, business and administration course in parallel with my PhD project. In this framework, I will be given the opportunity to work for a company for a 8 months training after my PhD. This experience will help me understand the essential components of a successful industrial project.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
In my PhD research project I benefit from a great deal of autonomy, which is a good experience as I learn a lot in terms of project management and decision making. However, I aspire to work in a less solitary way, and to work along with a team, with strong collaborations and discussions.
Unfortunately, no mentoring has been established in my university, which I regret a lot. I feel like I would have needed someone outside of my lab to talk to on a regular basis, share my scientific but also relational and managerial issues.
What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
I am a chemistry researcher; hence, women and men are in equal numbers among PhD students in this field. However, it seems still challenging to reach high positions as a woman in scientific research, and I have always had only men managers.
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
I feel like the most important step towards gender equality is education. I think that girls and boys should be trained and awaken on topics such as sexism and prejudices. For me women should be educated to defend themselves in delicate situations. Sometimes, it can be hard to express ourselves when we are in front of extremely destabilizing situations, and I strongly believe that we should be trained to do it. This would help us preserving our self-confidence but also favour the fight against gender discriminations. I also think that more rules such as quotas should be set in order to reach gender equality in the highest positions in academic scientific research. Even if this is an artificial way to promote equality, it will help young girls to identify to visible and brilliant women and give them confidence to start scientific careers. This kind of policies has many drawbacks, but I think that they are necessary as temporary measures towards gender equality.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
I have experienced great networking thanks to a French association for women in science called Femmes & Sciences, but also thanks to EPWS. This is extremely important for me because interacting with successful and inspiring women scientists helps me a lot to evolve in the scientific world.
I am currently building a community among young women scientists in Europe. The objective is to strengthen the link between young researchers and share experiences. The Facebook group of the Young EPWS community can be found following this link.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
If I had to start again, I would choose science because I am deeply interested in the development of solutions to build a sustainable world, and I believe that science has a lot to bring to the current situation. My PhD is an amazing opportunity to learn about potential technologies our society could rely on in the future. Moreover, as I just started my career as a scientist, I feel like I have many options ahead. After my 3 years PhD I will focus on how innovative technologies can be developed on a large scale in order to have an effective impact on atmospheric CO2 mitigation. I will learn to view science from a different angle and foster its impact on our society.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
I would like to tell women scientists that we should keep interacting through networks such as EPWS, in order to gain self-confidence, develop fruitful collaborations and share passions and experiences.