Q&A: Did you always want to be a scientist?

Nope! Indeed, I am not one of those people who dreamed of being a scientist or researcher as a child or a teenager!

Aged 8 or so I wanted to become a doctor or a lawyer, both seemed to be doing important work and earned a decent living (or so I thought). I guess work-life balance was not a real priority at that age.

Aged 12 I decided that being a doctor meant I could hurt people by making a simple mistake so I settled on being a forensic pathologist, can’t hurt people if they’re already dead — I did not realise that both a degree in medicine and law are required to be a certified “médecin légiste”. My backup plan was being an artist, a painter specifically. I quite liked watercolours and thought I was decent at it (based on a few pieces I produced in school – two of which still hang in my parents’ hallway).

Aged 15 I started hearing more and more that I would make a good engineer because I was good at maths and physics. Little did everyone know that I seemed good at those subjects because I figured out from an early age that the faster I finished my homework, the faster I could have free time. I was all about gaming the system (and gaming in general, I was all about perfecting my Tomb Raider and Myst playthroughs). Here again I had a backup plan — film director or potentially screen writer. I was horrendous (and still am) at writing anything that requires any type of plot line so I figured that being a film director might be easier. My teenage brain was a wonderfully confused place.

Aged 17, having finished “lycée” and successfully passed my final exams, I moved on to a “classe prépa” — intense studying for two years, no diploma but the possibility of passing exams to get into a fancy school (or any school that would have me, really). At this stage I started developing my life philosophy of “path of least resistance that will still get me somewhere”. Following all the previous engineering talk, a “classe prépa” was a decent choice and finishing a prépa followed by a random engineering school seemed to have better prospects than most French university courses. I literally had no end goal, I had no dreams, I was the perfect picture of a stereotypical apathetic teenager. But I survived those two years. I can’t remember now but I don’t think I even took the entrance exams to the top ranked schools, just the ones for the lower tier ones.

Aged 19, in a mechanical engineering school specialising in car design, I figured I’d continue on my path of least resistance streak and be a good ol’ designer of mechanical parts for cars or something of the sort. We heard the stories of some person who spent 30 years perfecting the design of the 3rd gear for one of the big French manufacturers — that sounded like it could do as a career. Maybe I wouldn’t specialise in gear design, I’ve had enough of 3D modelling those, but another part of a car.

Aged 22 was the start of a revelation. Picture this, second year of engineering school, six months of which we had to spend as an intern somewhere and write up a report and all that. You don’t have that many car design internships out there so the internship I landed was as part of an R&D team (team made up of one guy working full time, another about to retire and an intern) for a small plastic packaging company in the middle of nowhere close to the French Alps. My job was twofold — background research and design idea generation for a new trigger spray mechanism and being the stand-in tester for any products aimed at children. Who needs to go to the gym when you can spend long days trying out different models of squeeze bottles! At least now I know how those leak-proof valves work and how much each valve costs and that different parts of the world have different preferences in terms of ketchup texture. I should mention that having previously only lived in huge cities, I also learned that which boulangerie you buy bread in (500 inhabitants in town, 2 boulangeries) is borderline a political choice in a small town. The main outcome of this R&D stint was that I discovered that applied research was interesting!

Aged 23, first week of classes, the revelation continued! The main teacher said that there was a possibility to go for a M.Sc. on top of our expected engineering diploma by filing some extra papers and attending a few more classes and going for an internship in a research lab and then… wait for it… we could continue on to a PhD where we would be required to write a book (with an ISBN and all!) and that would probably be the only opportunity we’d get to publish a book and be sure that at least someone read it. I was sold! I had discovered my love for research a few months prior but I, honest to whatever research gods there might be, started on the path to an M.Sc because I was told that it might lead to a PhD and that would probably be the only time I’d get to write a book (with an ISBN!!!) and have someone read it. To the failed literature student that I was (I barely passed, and sometimes also failed, most of my literature and humanities classes) this was the Holy Grail. Come February we had to find another internship and someone gave me the details of one in a research lab in Finland. And that’s how I ended up switching from the Mediterranean to the Baltic coast in March, with all my skiing clothes in tow. I was definitely slowly moving towards becoming a researcher…

Aged 24 to 27 I started incorporating more and more environmental issues into my work. Designing cars is great but it’s also important to try and work on helping sort out the whole planet destruction problem. I published some, I taught some classes, I spent six months living off energy drinks and candy while writing the intro section to my thesis (article compilation, thank goodness, because I don’t think I would have ever survived writing a monograph) — I would not recommend that diet but it worked!

But wait, this is not the end of the story of how I settled into being a “proper” researcher specialising in sustainability issues!

Aged 27, PhD in hand (and a book with an ISBN!!!), I was at a loss as to what I wanted to do. And when I say, “at a loss”, I mean I spent six months literally doing absolutely nothing, then a few months travelling around a bit while telling myself that I’ll start looking for a job at the year mark from when I got my diploma. Life did not want me to stay idle that long though because I got a message about a (kinda) postdoc job opportunity about ten months in. I had applied months before and got put into a database and the title of my thesis contained keywords that were of interest to them. It wasn’t research as I had imagined it, there would be no journal publications, but it would be a really great line on my CV and, while I still had some savings left, the pay was good and I got to move to a new country. I was now a non-academia researcher!

Now, aged 32, I recently moved on from that job, back to research that’s mainly measured in how much funding you can bring in and the impact factor of the journals you publish in. My area of research is so far removed from what I did ten years ago and absolutely does not correspond to anything to anything I thought I’d ever be doing ten years ago. Am I going to stay in research? Who knows! I still like to think that when the European Space Agency opens the next call for astronauts I won’t be too old to apply. I definitely did not want to be an astronaut when I was little but I’d give anything to be one today!

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