What made you become a scientist and where are you in your career at the moment?
My interest in science started during high school, where I realised that nature and environmental questions were important to me. Spending a year in Australia after high school to learn English gave me time to strengthen my desire to explore science and more particularly biology. I studied in France up to my master level in plant ecology and evolution, then went on with my PhD in Zürich on plant ecology and then a post doc in Freiburg about invasive plant.
After completing my PhD, I had a ten-year break, during which I looked after my kids and taught French as a foreign language. I realised that I was missing science and started to look for new projects I could get involved in. That is how I joined WSL in 2016 and got involved in BIOSWEET-funded projects. This was a brand new and challenging domain for me, but very exciting as I could apply my scientific background on bioenergy. Even after the completion of BIOSWEET, we have several projects in the pipeline, including some on bioenergy and circular economy, and some promising collaborations in the field of manure-derived energy. We are also trying to apply for the upcoming SWEET funding program via a broad consortium focused on the energy transition in Switzerland.
What are your current research topics and what is your role within the SCCER BIOSWEET?
Our team at WSL is looking at bioenergy from a resource perspective. In our research team we study not only the woody biomass, but also the non-woody biomass. The latter is the main focus on which I work together with my colleague Vanessa Burg. We have been looking more particularly at production, storage, distribution and use of wet biomass like manure and green waste turned into biogas. We are looking at where biomass is available (and future projections of availability), how to use and mobilize it. Our current focus is on nutrient cycling in the context of anaerobic digestion, which is relevant to the implementation of the circular economy concept.
What do you find fascinating/challenging about the energy transition?
It is a very important topic for society, but very complex too. Therefore, it requires looking at it at an energy system level, but also integrate it more broadly in circular economy and related policies. Biomass could contribute to both the energy transition and the circular economy if used for energy while an efficient nutrient recovery is implemented. This is not always easily achieved though: For example, when producing biogas out of manure, the digestate can be used as fertiliser. It is important to keep in mind that the use of biomass for energy comes last in the hierarchy of uses (after material use; the so-called cascading use), especially for forest biomass. Swiss forests are generally well managed and rather underused and the usage of wood for energy is limited by the increment, the material use, other forms of forest use, finally by the sustainable withdrawal of biomass, taking economic needs and the management of protection forests into account.
Where do you see renewable energy in the next 10 years and what role will bioenergy (or your technology in particular) play?
I expect a very strong development of all renewable energies in the future. Although I am not on the technical side of bioenergy production, I believe it has a small but yet important role to play. Amounts of domestic biomass are not huge, but they are very flexible in terms of end-use (gas, heat, electricity, fuels); it can also be stored (e.g. as biogas), unlike intermittent renewable energies such as sun and wind. In addition, the natural gas industry in Switzerland is interested in integrating an increasing share of biogas in their infrastructure.
Currently, bioenergy being expensive is a challenge, but this should improve with technology development in the long term.
Do you think a gender balance exists in your research field?
At present, part of the field is still dominated by men, but this keeps improving over time. I honestly never felt being a woman was a problem in my career, but I am also aware other women may have had a different experience. WSL is very active in gender balance and diversity. Group leaders are getting close to parity, but there is much to catch up on because for a long time, those domains where not seen as meant for women.
WSL also provides a family room dedicated to young children care, which might be very useful to young parents. Various activities for children are also being organised during the summer vacations. Taking care of children and favouring my family life for a few years was a personal choice. However, If I look back 3 or 4 years ago, it would have been more complicated if I had chosen to give priority to work.
As a woman, did you feel specific challenges to overcome in your research field?
My main challenge as a mother remains to balance family and work times. I do not recall any particular challenge or difficulty about being a woman during my PhD and post-doc.
Even at a younger age, I remember having always been encouraged to go for science, whether at school or in my family. I picked biology, in which a better gender balance exists, but I know my relatives would have supported me even if I had chosen harder science, e.g. math or engineering, which are more seen as male subjects. There is still work in progress, but I am confident that this is improving.
What are your recommendations for young women wishing to pursue a career in the energy field?
If they are interested in science, they should go for it and trust their capacities. There are many role models to find, including talented female professors to look up to and to contact. Most institutions have gender equality programmes. Moreover, there are networks aiming at supporting women specifically. Fachfrauen Umwelt (https://www.ffu-pee.ch/de/home/index.html), for example, is a network for women working in environmental fields, which includes training and job adverts. Other networks also exist to support women in academia or willing to join the industry. More specifically at WSL, we have specific workshops and trainings to discuss and work among female scientists and offer/receive support.