My career path
"I get paid to come up with new ideas and to then try and bring those ideas to life. This part of my job is like being a child at recess."
I have been a professor at EPFL since 2015, and I’m head of the school’s Laboratory of Functional Inorganic Materials. I teach bachelor’s and master’s students in chemistry and chemical engineering. My research is focused on the design of novel materials that can remove contaminates from gas and liquid streams. We are using these materials for a variety of applications, such as purifying air and water, and carbon dioxide capture. This work is important, as it can help reduce environmental pollution, which will significantly improve quality of life globally. Furthermore, 10–15% of global energy is used for industrial separations, and this is without large-scale carbon-capture efforts. If we can make materials conduct the same separations with less energy input, we can save a lot of energy and hence emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
My passion. I get paid to come up with new ideas and to then try and bring those ideas to life. This part of my job is like being a child at recess. The sky is the limit. As such, no two days are ever the same. I also love the sense of discovery. Being able to see a new material and its properties before anyone else in the world is very exciting. So is having a positive effect on the environment and mentoring the students that will go out and do the same.
My career path. After my PhD in organic chemistry, I did a postdoc at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland and then worked at the National Lab at Berkeley. I’ve had several key mentors throughout my career. These people have given me opportunities, even when I did not have the skills set I needed to ensure my success. For instance, my postdoc advisor hired me for a position to do neutron scattering despite the fact that I had never done any scattering experiments. This one open door led me to several other important crossroads in my career. Throughout this time, my mentors gave me constructive criticism and helped to reinforce and improve my self-confidence. You must believe that you can change the world and visualize a path to get there in order to do so. For this reason, the support of strong mentors is extremely important. I’ve also had unexpected support from other colleagues and people in higher administrative positions.
A downside or obstacle is when nothing works. We try new ideas, but a huge portion of what we do fails. In this field, you have to be good at failure and see it as instructive. And I guess all minorities encounter certain hurdles. For women, it feels like we often have to work a bit harder than our male counterparts to earn our colleagues’ respect. I also feel that strong women are often viewed as aggressive by their male counterparts, and that men are much more likely to challenge women in higher positions than they are other men. But there are some advantages as well. As a minority, I can stand out, so it’s easier to make a lasting impression.
I’m most proud of the professional growth that I see in the students that I mentor. I get to watch them grow into world-class scientists with the tools necessary to make positive changes to our world. I would say this is my biggest contribution. As for my strengths, I’m open-minded and like to hear different viewpoints. As far as my weaknesses go, I would really like to improve my time management.