What made you become a scientist and where are you in your career at the moment?
My first strong connection with science was in high school during a chemistry class. We had a discussion about the electronic structure of atoms, and I realized that almost everything in life could be explained by changes in these structures. I was immediately caught by the subject and I realised that I did not just want to understand but also manipulate the physico-chemical structure of matter to facilitate our lifestyle. This is how I came with the idea of being a chemical engineer and pursued this goal by obtaining my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez.
During my bachelor studies I gained interests in catalysis and renewable energy based on my origins (Puerto Rico). Puerto Rico is an island that heavily depends on the import of petroleum, which makes the price of fuel electricity unbearable. Therefore, these subjects were influential to me.
I met Jeremy Luterbacher (now an EPFL Professor) during an internship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He was a post doc and invited me to join his lab at EPFL once he would be settled. I accepted the invitation and moved to Switzerland after my bachelor and started my PhD studies at EPFL. Currently, I am doing my post-doctoral research at MIT funded by the SNSF in the development of microporous catalysts (zeolites) for biomass processing.
What are your current research topics and what is your role within the SCCER BIOSWEET?
I was mostly active within BIOSWEET during my PhD at EPFL, as professor Jeremy Luterbacher is leading Work Package 4. My research topics revolved around the separation, conservation and upgrading of the three main components of lignocellulosic biomass (lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose) to produce liquid fuels and other valuable chemicals. Each of the upgrading pathway required a deep understanding of their chemistry transformation given their difference reactivities. The overall process consists on the initial depolymerisation and stabilization of these components, followed by the catalytic upgrading of each biomass fraction into xylitol, ethanol, aromatics and biojet fuels.
What do you find fascinating/challenging about the energy transition?
To me, the most fascinating thing about the energy transition is the strong connection it has with important changes in our society of which most people still underestimate. There are of course several technical challenges in this area, but in my point of view, a crucial challenge lies in demonstrating the social impact of sustainable uses of waste, and natural resources on health, economic growth and as well as political relations.
The energy transition is going slow and governments have the power to grant increases in the production of renewable energy through scientists. Although, there has been improvements and increases in solar and wind energy supplies, the world demand of energy and chemicals is constantly growing and we have not been able to keep up. We need more than ever the support of politicians to fulfil this demand responsibly.
You worked in Switzerland and now work in the United States. What are the main differences in the energy transition between these two countries?
In my opinion, Switzerland tends to deploy more means to renewable energy research and transition than United States, relative to their interests and total research budgets. Given that there are no fossil resources in Switzerland, the push towards renewable energies is more urgently needed, compared to United States, which have large reserves of oil and gas. Although, the current budget resources dedicated to the energy transition does not match the actual needs, the Swiss government has showed a strong commitment with the transition by stabilizing the new energy strategy 2050.
How about work culture?
The work culture in Switzerland and United States is quite different. When I moved to Switzerland, I did not understand how Swiss people managed to stop working every day at a fixed time without feeling guilty for leaving work undone
In United States, an common work shift is about 10 to 12 hours a day, which hinder time for enough sleep or having a family and social life outside of work. Over the years, I tried to follow the Swiss trend and it has helped me to structure a healthy balance of work and private life. Even now in United States, I try not to feel guilty if I stop at fixed time and respect reasonable daily working time.
On a more personal side, I still believe that it is very important to set boundaries and goals at work, so you avoid getting swallowed by the workload. There is still too much to do and it will always be like that. Nevertheless, this work is fascinating and useful, since we can improve quality of life through energy transition, but not at the expense of our health or private life.
Where do you see renewable energy in the next 10 years and what role will bioenergy (or your technology in particular) play?
As said before, the future of renewable energy depends a lot on political and social interests. The use of solar, wind, hydropower will likely increase, but a significant boost in the use of biomass for energy is less certain. In a way, this makes sense, because biomass might be better used to produce chemicals (e.g. clothing, plastics, medicines, etc.) than fuels. To some extent, it might also be efficient to use biomass to produce electricity, due to high energy yields.
This said, biomass remains an important option to decarbonise the energy and transport sectors, especially in specific fields where biomass is the only sustainable option, e.g. aviation fuels. There is also a growing interest in using CO2 as a renewable carbon source but given the chemical stability of CO2 (most stable form of carbon) its transformation is quite challenging.
Do you think a gender balance exists in your research field?
Unfortunately, the answer is no, despite the improvements we have seen over the years as results of new laws and different inclusion movements. It is vital to consolidate into our society the fact that women are capable and are necessary not only in the fields of research and science but in every professional aspect. We are still far from equal, but we must continue to make noise to society and politicians through these inclusive movements and I am confident that we can achieve our goal.
As a woman, did you feel specific challenges to overcome in your research field?
When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a policewoman and I could feel these gender limits, including from family and friends. Then over the years, I felt this movement towards equity growing in society. When I grew up as a chemical engineer, people kept asking why I shouldn’t just be a chemist in a laboratory (as engineer was more a man’s job). I remember asking if they would have had the same thoughts if I was a man.
On the other hand, at school I felt encouraged to choose my own career, despite the lack of understanding from some members of my family and friends. The school really gave me the tools to stand up with my choices and move forward on what I really wanted to do. I took a few aptitude tests at school to try to define what professional career I wanted to pursue and without any surprise, I was meant to be a scientist. The key was that teachers took the time with each of us to discuss the results and encourage us to continue our career path to achieve our goals despite our gender. I was lucky in that sense, since not all girls got such support. Too often, they are raised with the idea that science is not for them; creating boundaries at an early age at home. At the end, having a supportive attitude from teachers, parents and relatives at the early years of girls drives the mind and potential of the women they will become.
What are your recommendations for young women wishing to pursue a career in the energy field?
The first thing is to avoid putting limitations to your objectives and start your career with small steps, take one challenge at the time When starting university, there are lots of classes and topics to deal with, so imagining a PhD, is hard. There are many research fields to focus on with relation to renewable energy, but it is important to find the field in which you are most passionate about. Once this is achieved, a good analysis approach is to identify technical bottlenecks early in the process and try to think out of the box. Do not hesitate to stray away from normal thinking. It is not effective to focus too much on how stuff currently work, but rather on targets (goals) and ways to reach them. This methodology of taking small steps to overcome technical difficulties and professional challenges has been the key of my career growth without overwhelming myself.