Interview of Séverine Toussaint, a FDV doctoral student who won the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science grant
“On 11 October 2017, the L’Oréal Foundation organized the ”Generation Young Researchers” conference, followed by the presentation of the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowships in partnership with the Académie des sciences and French National Commission for UNESCO. The L’Oréal Foundation gave 30 young female scientists with an excellent record a grant to help them at a pivotal time in their career.”
Among those talented scientists is Séverine Toussaint, a PhD student we are privileged to have with us at our Doctoral School. Over a cup of coffee in the CRI lounge, we met Séverine Toussaint to talk about her grant, her researches and her career.
About the hidden importance of nails
We can’t imagine by looking at our nails the importance and the number of questions it raises, Séverine Toussaint does. She works on understanding how primates got key characteristics such as nails and opposable thumbs. Actually, nails, yes, nails are what defined the primate order and we don’t know why it has been selected in the evolution track: what is the point of nails in terms of evolution? What is their use? Nails are mysterious.
I know what you are thinking, and, yes, nails and claws are two different things morphologically and structurally.
Though, we do know why and how great apes use nails – surely for a better handling of objects and it is probably connected with the development of intelligence – the mystery still lies on the side of the first primates. And because small primates are more representatives of the origins of primates, Séverine Toussaint based her thesis project on them.
Driven by the curiosity of this passionate question we, however, never thought of before: the point of nails, and being now very aware of ours, we asked her the hypothesis on the matter. She said to us that it was probably linked to a better locomotion in trees, as previously thought, but particularly the ability to climb on vertical and thin substrates.
It is this will of understanding everything, this curiosity that drove Séverine to science: “Since I was a kid, I really liked trying to understand things, I asked a lot of questions: why this apple is red? Why is the sky blue? The more and more you grow up, the more you realize that at school you’re being told: that’s how it is, it’s like that! Then, you start reading books and understanding: maybe it is not quite like that.
Since I was a child, I was interested in science and rather a good student. And I’ve been told: you like animals, you’re a good student, you must become a vet. No one ever told me: you can be a researcher. Thus, I started vet preparatory class. I hated it. I ask a lot of questions and in preparatory class, you’re told: no, it is how it is and that’s it...”
Then, she went to university, studying a Life Sciences Licence and did an ethology Master Degree (studying the behavior of animals via different fields of studies: environmental, genetic, biology, etc.)
During her first internship, at the Museum in primatology, she worked on the manual capacities of small primates and digging a bit deeper: “I realized there are so many things that we don’t know yet, that it is a very interesting field in which there is still so many things to do”
The inevitable meeting of Séverine Toussaint and the CRI
Thirsty for freedom and autonomy, she wanted to build her own interdisciplinary research project. But she “realized that, in the current research field, it is hard to do so being a student.”
By chance, someone at the Museum told me there was a Doctoral School which favored the students who had their own project of interdisciplinary researches. “That’s how I found out about the CRI. I told myself it was perfect for me, I really liked the education style. I was really drawn in to the interdisciplinarity of the cursus.”
She joined the AIV Master: “With only my ethology Master, I thought it was not the time to start a thesis. First, I wanted to acquire more knowledge in other fields of study to be able to propose a more interesting thesis.”
Curious, eager for autonomy and freedom, and, therefore, at home in the world of interdisciplinarity, the meeting between Séverine and the CRI was a prolific and evident match. “It was interesting that classes were made by students every Friday; it was outside of the pure school framework. I really like the fact that I did three internships in three different fields: paleontology, statistic physics and anatomy. It helped me to really build up my thesis project.”
Bathed by the afternoon sun, we kept chatting about her daily researcher life: “I don’t have a typical day as a researcher but more like typical periods: one or two months on the field, working in a zoological park, then analyzing data, videos and statistics. Then comes the paleontology phase: fossils studies, 3d scan. And I also work on developing a force sensor.”
We didn’t know about that latest project and discovered she is not only a researcher but also an inventor. “At the beginning of my thesis, I wondered if the nails allowed a better spatial repartition of the forces. We didn’t have any way to test it. There is no existing sensors or very onerous. So I had the idea of a little sensor with deformable polymer cells. So I developed a prototype with the OpenLab.”
The project went so well that she looked for financial support to go further. She’s now the project leader and still works on it with the help of the SATT Lutech. She dedicated a 6 months break to launch the force sensor. The captor is now in its industrialization phase.
It illustrates Séverine’s strength: she sees, in the questions she asks herself, the beginning of an adventure in which you have to travel, built, get stuck in the mud and learn more about numerous subjects.
For Women in Science
When I talked to you about mud, this was not a figure of speech:
“When I received the call telling me I obtained the grant, I was coming back from work, at night – because I was studying nocturnal animals. I was scrambling in the woods, covered with mud, carrying all my scientific stuff and asking myself: why are you doing this? What is the point? And then I got the call. Diane Baras was on the other end of the line and said: «You better sit down” –I couldn’t- “You have the grant.”
It took me a week to realize. I never thought I’ll have it. There are only 15 PhD students selected out of 1500 applicants. And in my area of expertise, it is even rarer. I applied in my room, alone, with low expectations.”
And here she is, winner of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women is Science Fellowship grant. The grant represents a welcomed and great recognition for her dedication and her work, which she mostly did by herself. It is also a gratification for her study area which is not well known: she is the only one to have won this grant in this field of study.
But the grant also highlights women in science. For the second time, The Foundation gives the floor to the young women who will be the scientists of tomorrow. The Women In Science program helps women to shatter the “glass-ceiling”. “This grant deconstructs the prejudices and promotes science”
Séverine adds that “by just seeing the other laureates, the clichés are broken: everyone had a different profile, cursus, background, stories.”
Rewarded for the excellence of their work, their grants of €15,000 will be used for their research allowing the laureates to develop their potential and research in an independent way: “I will purchase materials to film animals in a more precise way”.
The grant is also the opportunity to transmit the passion to the younger generation. The researchers will go into schools to raise the interest of students about science particularly young women. Indeed, only 17% of women work in science and they have three times less probability to get a PhD even if they have the same results as young men. And even when you do get a PhD as a woman, the obstacles, oppositions and battles are multiple. 71% of the highest academic functions are held by men in France. Even now, Séverine told us about the fights she has every day just to be taken seriously in an area in which she is an expert.
Following an article about her in Le Parisien, Séverine was even contacted by her old school to promote science. It promises to be a nostalgic trip. She wants to break the prejudices about science: “there is no need to have excellent grades to become a researcher”, girls are as good at science as boys, science is not just mathematics and physics: there are so many fields of research and you can go interdisciplinary!
In the future, Séverine would like to do a postdoc abroad and run an interdisciplinary lab with a physics division, engineering division, etc.