Extracting the Best - from Students and Samples
Sitting Down With... Valérie Pichon, Director, Laboratory of Analytical Sciences, Bioanalytics and Miniaturization, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris, France.
Did you enjoy your recent role as co-chair at the 31st International Symposium on Chromatography (ISC 2018)?
I really enjoyed it! Everything went well and we didn’t have any unpleasant surprises! My co-chairs – Didier Thiébaut and Jean-Luc Veuthey – and I received a very positive response from all the speakers we invited, so we were able to put together an exciting program.
Any sessions you were particularly proud of?
The session dedicated to teaching and analytical chemistry was a highlight for me. It allowed a cross-section of the scientific community – PhDs, postdocs and researchers from industry and academia – to express their needs and expectations in terms of education. Our aim was to get a better idea of the needs of industry, and to be sure that we, as academics, are giving our students the tools they will need to meet those needs.
What’s your view on diversity in conference programs?
Well, it’s noticeable that very few women are recognized for academic prizes at analytical chemistry conferences. Many male scientists still don’t seem to see a problem – but I hope that we are becoming more aware of the issue as a society.
Walk us through a typical day in your role…
My time is divided between teaching and supervising students, assessing research activities conducted in the laboratories, evaluating applications, and management responsibilities both for my own laboratory and for the wider unit, which houses some 120 people. I also search for new partnerships and write proposals to finance our research activity.
What does your group focus on?
The aim of the analytical chemistry department is to develop separation methods – gas, liquid and supercritical fluid chromatography, and electrokinetic methods – particularly for the analysis of new or challenging classes of compounds, including glycoprotein drugs, metabolites, petroleum additives, ions, and so on. We have to face the demands of different sectors – the police, defence, government and industry.
My own group is devoted to selective extraction. We develop stationary phases based on antibodies, aptamers and molecularly imprinted polymers to allow us to selectively extract targets present in trace quantities in samples. Our work is applicable to a range of fields; for example, we work with the nuclear industry to develop methods for extracting ions, and with the cosmetic industry to extract pollutants from the oils used in their products.
What aspect of your job do you find most interesting?
I love the excitement of starting a new collaboration and discovering a whole new field of activity or area of research. It’s interesting in itself, as well as a good way for me to broaden my skills. I also like supervising students during their masters or doctoral internships; it’s rewarding to help them develop their research skills.
How has your role changed over time?
In the last few years, I have spent more and more time on my administrative role, trying to find funding for research. It’s not necessarily a lack of funding per se, but we are investing a great deal of time and energy into identifying and applying for funding from many different organizations, each of which has a very high rejection rate. This situation is particularly difficult for young people starting in academic positions; if you’re well known and have been selected for projects before, it is easier to secure funding. Such a reality is a shame, because academia relies on young scientists with fresh ideas to keep a field evolving and improving.
Is it easier to find funding from industry?
Definitely. With industry, if they have confidence in your research activity and think it can help them, we just discuss the project, perhaps write a one-page summary, and then get started. To apply for an national grant can take months and several lengthy proposal documents – and, after all that, only about 6 to 10 percent of projects will be funded.
Tough odds! What keeps you motivated?
The collaborative projects that we still manage to get! This allows me to pursue the research that interests me in various fields. But my favourite part of the job is sharing my experience with my students. I love to see them find success, either in terms of results, publications or in finding a job quickly.
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