Woman Scientist of the Month: Anna Fontcuberta i Morral (12/2018)

In regular intervals, EPWS interviews a distinguished woman scientist in 10 questions.

In this section, we are interviewing European women of various ages and disciplines, recognized by the scientific community for their achievements, who are also concerned by the gender-equality goals of EPWS. They are true role models and a source of inspiration for the future for other women scientists.

Read all the Interviews here

This month EPWS gives the floor to Anna Fontcuberta i Morral.

Professor Fontcuberta I Morral is an outstanding Spanish physicist at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland (with a special competence in solid state physics. She was awarded the Emmy Noether Distinction for Women in Physics of the European Physical Society in Spring 2015.




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 am curious and I loved math and physics from a very early age. Physics was for me the natural choice as I wanted to follow my passion. As usual, a teacher woke up this in me. My math and science teacher from age 11 to 14 taught me how fun math are. He was a great teacher and also had a good sense of humor that inspired us all. Among the classmates we still talk about him, he made a great impact on all of us (even those who did not pursue science).


What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?

My area of research is semiconductor materials. The center of our research is finding new materials and nanostructures that provide advanced optical and electrical properties. The applications are in next generation computing and solar cells. We have shown how the use of nanostructures brings high savings in use of costly materials and at the same time an increase in functionality. Currently, we are investigating a new material that could be extremely performing for solar cells and still be made of elements highly abundant in the earth crust. In this sense, we try to contribute to sustainability of technology by providing solutions that save in resources but that also contribute to renewable energy harvesting.


What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?

I am proud of my students and of achieving an environment where they collaborate on a daily basis with trust, sympathy and great synergy. I love the fact that 1+1>2 in team work.


Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?

The “Eureka” moments are great: in a short instant you finally understand something and the implications. These moments happen sparsely in time but stay with you forever. In addition, seeing present/former group members getting recognition and becoming great scientists/professionals gives me great satisfaction.


In which country/countries have you been doing research?

In France, the United States of America, Germany and Switzerland.


What is your agenda for the coming months?

The agenda is extremely full, one has to be extremely well organized to do this job. On the work side there are classes, scientific discussions with the students, deadlines for articles and proposal submissions, attendance and organization of conferences, chairing and active participation in meetings at my own institution and in the Swiss National Science Foundation… On the private side there is time with my family, reading and physical exercise.


Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?

There are barriers from all kinds and I met them. I have also suffered mobbing. These experiences have made me stronger and they help me in supervising and advising younger generation scientists.
I did benefit a lot from mentoring and from fantastic role models from which I got inspired and I am very thankful. Unfortunately never from a woman, as they were extremely few in leading positions.


Anna Fontcuberta i Morral in front of the Molecular Beam Epitaxy equipment used for growing her samples. Photo: Lucas Güniat


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?

There have been advances, but we are not yet in a fair situation. Statistics show that there is a drop in female scientists pursuing an academic career after the PhD. As far as I know, this happens in all countries. .
Each country has different bias and culprits. It would take a whole page to elaborate on this… I will only mention that I personally enjoyed the US, where sexist comments/actions are strictly forbidden. In the institution I was, I never felt I was being treated as a woman but just as a normal human being.


What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?

This is a topic many people do research on, my opinion here is very humble. I believe the future is the youngest generations, we need to go to schools and encourage girls that are good at math and science to continue being good. We need to pass the message that there is no such thing as a job for a particular gender. We also need to understand that both men and women are in the same boat and we win by working together. Mentoring should be provided at all stages (for both genders).
Also we all need to provide awareness on unconscious bias to those that are already in place. We also need to speak up when unfair situations arise.


Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?

Yes, at EPFL we organize female faculty lunches on a monthly basis during the academic year. These are great occasions to network and to learn/discuss many aspects of the academic life.
In 2006, a group of female professors created the WISH foundation (Women In Science and Humanities). There we try to provide mentoring and networking occasions to female students and we also give them fellowships to perform their master thesis abroad. This allows them to further gain independence and self-awareness.


If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?

Yes, I would do it again. I am happy about my path, I would not change much, maybe I would take more chances for scientific adventure.


Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

Go ahead, follow your passion.
Also, you do not have to adopt typical masculine attitudes to become successful, follow your own style. Only being truly yourself you can succeed and find your job and your life very fulfilling.


Favourite Links:

EPFL-WISH Foundation: https://www.epflwishfoundation.org/

Fix the Leaky Pipeline: https://www.fix-the-leaky-pipeline.ch/

Erna Hamburger Prize 2018: https://youtu.be/KyAb-7Ij7Qo