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Exclusive interview with Pr Véronique Michaud, Director of EPFL’s Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites

Professor Véronique Michaud, Director of EPFL’s Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites, is an accomplished researcher and teacher, with 30 years of experience in materials science and engineering. She tells us about academic life and why composites is a ‘cool’ career for women.

Exclusive interview with Pr Véronique Michaud, Director of EPFL’s Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites
READING TIME

5 minutes, 10 secondes

Becoming a materials scientist

Véronique Michaud’s parents worked in the medical sector and a respect for study, work and financial independence was instilled in her early on. A career as a doctor was one possibility she toyed with as a child, but she also liked animals and nature. At school she was good at maths and physics and interested in technology, and there were topics she definitely did not want to make a career of such as law, history and languages. Studying materials science and engineering at the École des Mines in Paris seemed a natural choice, combining many topics she was interested in.

On finishing her degree, she did not want to start working immediately and applied to prestigious US university MIT.

“I was young and wanted to learn more, experience more. I also wanted to go to the US because I had been once on holiday and really loved the atmosphere of the US campuses. At first I thought only of doing a master’s degree so I left for MIT thinking I would stay for a year and a half, but I stayed many years more to complete a PhD in Materials Engineering and a post doc position.”

She returned to France to become an assistant professor at École Centrale Paris. When her partner (now husband) obtained a position at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland she decided to go too. She joined EPFL’s Laboratory for Polymer and Composite Technology, where she progressed to adjunct professor in 2009, and in 2017 she was nominated Associate Professor and created the Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites (LPAC). She has also been Associate Dean of Engineering for Education, School of Engineering, since 2018.

A fulfilling academic career

Michaud chose to pursue an academic career for several reasons. Maintaining a certain amount of freedom to choose her research projects, and to be constantly challenged and at the forefront of new discoveries, were important. The opportunity to teach also appealed.

Her enthusiasm for her role today is obvious.

“I still have fun! I am still challenged every day by colleagues and students. I feel I don’t age because I’m always in contact with younger people. The working environment is also very pleasant. It’s hard work, but it’s positive, and the lab members are like family to me. I enjoy my projects and seeing my research applied in industry is a great source of happiness and pride. I like to feel that I have made a contribution which helps people to solve a problem or develop new products.”

Talking to high school students thinking about studying Materials Science and Engineering. (Image: EPFL.)
Talking to high school students thinking about studying Materials Science and Engineering. (Image: EPFL.)

Managing the many demands on her time is not always easy, she admits, and often requires consultation with family to find a good equilibrium.

“The difficulty, especially as you become more senior, is to learn to say “no” to a lot of things, because you have to find the best balance and not get completely drawn into too many activities.”

Research must be useful

Michaud’s research has always focused on composites processing and ranges from fundamental studies on understanding how composites can be manufactured, to the development of functional composites that combine structural properties with another function such as self-healing or sensing. Sustainability is also becoming more of a priority but it’s a topic that she’s addressed for a long time.

“At the beginning it was really about the lightweighting that composites offer for mobility applications such as automotive and aerospace, but now it’s also about the use of natural resources like natural fibers, agricultural waste and bio-based polymers. In many projects that are more applied, we look at cost and environmental footprint at the same time as we do the scientific and technological developments.”

Sustainability is also used as a way to guide research because if a new development is too expensive, or harmful to the environment, it will not find a practical use.

One example of the success of this approach is CompPair (winner of the 2021 JEC Composites Startup Booster competition), which is commercializing LPAC research on self-healing composites. The company is currently developing prepregs integrating a healable matrix resin. The objective is to reduce the maintenance costs and extend the lifetime of composite products, and enable easier recycling at end of life. Michaud is CompPair’s scientific adviser and co-founder.

In the Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites, working on a project to develop novel skins for touring skis. (Image: Alain Herzog, EPFL.)
In the Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites, working on a project to develop novel skins for touring skis.
(Image: Alain Herzog, EPFL.)

More diverse and open to women

At EPFL around 35% of the students studying materials science and engineering are women. But in some subjects, such as mechanical engineering, it’s still much lower.

“Materials has always been a little more open to women because it covers many aspects, so I think maybe it’s less scary,” Michaud observes.

She has not seen much of an increase in the number of women studying composites since she was a student, but thinks this is changing.

“Composites can be seen from many aspects. There’s the mechanical engineering side of composites but there’s also the chemistry side, which is booming these days with the development of bio-based materials, and this is possibly more traditionally populated with women. I think the field of composites is also evolving in a way that is less about aerospace and big ‘traditional’ industries, into a sector that is more diverse and more open to women. So, there are more women studying, maybe, but also it is becoming appealing to a wider range of people than was the case 25 or 30 years ago.”

Michaud believes encouraging women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is a battle that must be fought every day. She participates in a lot of outreach programs and makes sure that the teaching teams for her EPFL courses consist of roughly equal numbers of male and female assistants.

Taking a look at a composites-intensive light aircraft during a weekend visit to Aix les Bains aerodrome.
Taking a look at a composites-intensive light aircraft during a weekend visit to Aix les Bains aerodrome.

“We need to show it’s normal to be a women in industry. I try and encourage them this is something that could interest them, that it is open to them, that they can pursue this career if they want to. I try to reassure them, by sharing my own experience, that it’s possible. Every time I can I try to project the image that it’s normal for women to be in this field, and it’s cool to be in this field.”

Role models and advice

Michaud jokes that she has never really followed any career advice but her professor at École des Mines was an important influence in the initial stages of her studies. His friendly, supportive approach to students combined with a rigorous, enthusiastic attitude to his research impressed her greatly. This is something she has always tried to emulate.

And what is her advice for women considering a career in composites?

“I’d say, go for it! Composites is a super-interesting field. Also, we are composite materials ourselves. We’re heterogeneous materials made of bones and muscles, the ‘fibers and glue.’ So, to some extent, it’s one of the most bio-inspired fields you can think of. And it’s very varied, there are many, many aspects, so you always find something that you like, from chemistry and materials science to mechanics, to economics or aesthetics.”

She would also tell them that no decision is forever.

“You can try it, and if you don’t like it you can decide to move into something else. But you’ll always learn something from the composites world, so it’s never a loss.”

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