With interests spanning biology, Chinese language, and the communication of science, Agathe Chaigne could have chosen to pursue any one of the fields. Instead, she chose all three. Her studies have taken her through several prestigious institutions in France, including UPMC's Complexité du Vivant graduate school, to China and back again, and onward to London, where she will soon begin an interdisciplinary post-doc. And somehow she makes it all seem possible. Meet an inspiring young researcher who knows the pleasure and value of taking it with you.
You can connect with Dr. Chaigne and other members, past and present, of the graduate school Complexité du Vivant via the Polaris platform dedicated to their research community: https://cdv-upmc.mysciencework.com/
As graduation approached at her lycée in Nantes, in the west of France, she was torn between pursuing studies in science and in Chinese language. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Talented in such far-flung fields that, eventually, we chose both, throwing a degree in Chinese on top of our PhD studies in biology. Or…is that just Agathe Chaigne’s story? Today, the talented, young scientist has defended said PhD and is continuing in her lab at the prestigious Collège de France for a first post-doc. “I like not leaving anything behind,” she says of the skills and knowledge she has accumulated over time. In fact, it’s a personal policy that accounts for many stops along her career path.
After three years of intense preparatory study in the sciences, Agathe was accepted at France’s renowned Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where she took her biology studies—with a healthy dose of chemistry, physics and math—through a bachelor’s and the first year of her master’s degree. At this point, she took the time to strengthen her skills around another passion: explaining science. Agathe earned the national certification to teach at the high school level and above (a very competitive process in France), but there are other ways to share the fruits of scientific research, she knew. To that end, she completed a program in science journalism, which gave her the opportunity to intern as a writer for the science pages of the French newspaper Le Monde and the magazine Science & Vie.
With these qualifications under her belt and the thirst to communicate science momentarily satisfied, Agathe Chaigne joined the Graduate School for the Study of the Complexity of Life (l’École Doctorale Complexité du Vivant) at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie, in Paris. After completing her master’s in developmental biology and the requisite internships (one in Shanghai – a natural choice for this Sinophile), Agathe found herself officially seduced by research. “I think my major issue is that I like a lot of things, but sometimes you have to choose. I decided research would combine many of those things: the science, the explaining…” She stayed on at UPMC in pursuit of her PhD. In accordance with her policy of Nothing Interesting Left Behind, she also resumed her Chinese studies, working weekends, lunchtimes and nights to fit it in. “It was tiring, but I’d missed it. We did history, literature, ancient Chinese—I translated Confucius. That was hard.” Just when you thought nothing could faze this woman...
Today, the now-Doctor Chaigne is wrapping up a project in the lab of Marie-Hélène Verlhac where they focus on the way oocytes – egg cells – divide. The female reproductive cell doesn’t just split down the middle: oocyte division happens asymmetrically, yielding one large cell and two small “polar bodies”, in order to concentrate as much of the resources as possible into the egg. Agathe’s approach to the topic, unsurprisingly, blends elements of different fields. She studies the biophysics of this uneven cellular split, the mechanical properties of the oocyte that make it happen. In September, she’ll take these skills to London with her where she will apply them to the study of stem cell division, working with Ewa Paluch at University College London.
The Verlhac lab, in Paris
As she prepares to move from the lab of one female PI to another, Dr. Chaigne observes that, throughout her experience in research, she has been surrounded by other women scientists. Role models were not lacking but, still, she has experienced sexism in science. “Not too often, but sufficiently often for it to be annoying.” And annoying it must be to catch one’s internship director making rude gestures as one bends over the microscope, to be addressed only because one’s underwear is showing or to consult on the colors of a poster – never on science. That particularly unenlightened professor of Agathe’s was old, she says, “so, I’m going to blame it on a generational thing. But I think it’s really sad. I want to show young girls that science can be exciting and that they can do it just as well as the boys. Hopefully, in ten years, we won’t be talking about this.”
Her academic and career path so far provides plenty of inspirational points for anyone, but she brushes off any such observations. “Everybody has his or her strengths and just has to figure out how to exploit them to their full advantage.” While she’s at it, Agathe Chaigne will be adding one more by learning MATLAB, the technical data visualization software. She used to rely on physicist colleagues to use it, “but I realized I wanted to do it myself.” And so she shall.