What made you become a scientist and where are you in your career at the moment?
As a teenager, I began to have a strong interest in nature and a passion for biology, chemistry and geography. During my last two years in high school, a very good and motivated biology teacher made me curious about all the biological phenomena on earth. After finishing school, I decided to study biology with a year abroad (St. Andrews, Scotland) where I also had a female research supervisor who reinforced my choice and showed me what the academic path of a female researcher can be like. Once I had graduated, my plan wasn’t to continue my studies with a PhD, but rather to move towards something practical in the field of research. I began working as a field scientist in soil science for a year and then stratedlooking for an interesting job related to plant sciences. There was a job advertisement as researcher with an interesting research portfolio as plant scientist at WSL doing field as well as lab experiments. I applied but I wasn’t experienced enough for to start directly as a scientist and was instead asked to do a PhD with the same subject. As I was interested in developing a deeper understanding of plant and soil interactions, I decided to accept. Once again, I had a woman as supervisor who showed me the possibility of being a successful female researcher leading a group of scientists.
Without a PhD my subsequent Postdoctoral studies at Université Laval and the Canadian Forest Service would not have been possible, nor would I have received my recent position at the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). I am pleased I was proven wrong because my job now is very satisfying, being multifaceted and responsible for the bioenergy research programme of SFOE on a national as well as an international level.
What are your current research topics and what is your role within the SCCER BIOSWEET?
As Head of the Bioenergy Research Program at SFOE, I am supporting bioenergy research (both technically and financially), in line with the 2021-2024 energy research masterplan developed by SFOE (see Publikationen (admin.ch)), which was published in November 2020. The main topics are (1) Biomass as a substrate (procurement, logistics, new substrates etc.); (2) Biomass for supply of electricity and heat and as a fuel (process heat in industry, small-scale processing of biogas, biofuels as drop-in fuels etc.; (3) Biomass in the bio-economy (generation of material and energy-related value-added, use of residual substances from industrial production, bioenergy and carbon capture and utilisation etc.)
With regard to the SCCER Biosweet I am one of the experts of the evaluation committee reviewing the progress of the SCCER over the last 8 years.
Where do you see renewable energy in the next 10 years and what role will bioenergy (or your technology in particular) play?
Globally, the production and use of renewable energy is increasing but depends strongly on the countries’ potentials as well as on the framework conditions. Most discussions are focused on the rapid growth of wind and solar deployment and the massive drop in costs but the most important source of renewable energy worldwide today is bioenergy. Bioenergy has a unique feature with providing low-carbon transport fuels, electricity, and heat for industry and buildings but is also a limited resource.
In Switzerland, we are on a good path to increase the share of renewables but our pace is slow. There remains a neglected bioenergy potential which can be used but the costs are too high. This is the point where bioenergy research comes into play by making conversion processes economically viable and developing new business models. Apart from that, politics also have to support the technological and economic achievements by setting appropriate framework conditions.
Do you think a gender balance exists in your research field?
Since I am working at the interface of natural sciences and engineering the research field is still male dominated. However, young female researchers are catching up and show a strong passion for their research.
As a woman, did you feel specific challenges to overcome in your research field?
As a biologist, I have learned and am still learning today with great pleasure and passion a lot about the energy system and bioenergy conversion technologies in particular. Continuous learning and education is the key to success and this may be even more pronounced for women.
The balance between family and work might be the biggest challenge for many because an academic career as part-time researcher is hardly realistic. The Swiss Federal Office of Energy is an attractive employer, which made it possible for me to have an exciting work portfolio while working part-time.
What are your recommendations or your message to young women wishing to pursue a career in the energy field?
I would definitely tell them yes, you have made the right choice! An attractive and manifold work portfolio is waiting for you and you can use your expertise nationally as well as internationally because the topic of renewable energy and cleantech solutions is a hot issue for society!