02/12/2024 | News release | Distributed by Public on 02/12/2024 01:56
To mark Women and Girls in Science Day, we spoke to Prof. Dr. Anne L'Huillier, former Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) beneficiary and recipient of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics,along with Dr. Ferenc Krausz and Dr. Pierre Agostini.
Dr. L'Huillier, a French and Swedish physicist who works on the interaction between short and intense laser fields and atoms, has supervised numerous MSCA postdoctoral researchers and coordinated several MSCA projects over the past two decades in the field of attosecond science. These include among others, ATTOPIE, OHIO and ATTOCO. More recently, she obtained funding for the MSCA doctoral training network MEDEA, training and supervising doctoral researchers.
Anne L'Huillier's early journey into science
Initially drawn to physics and mathematics, Dr. L'Huillier's career was marked by a determined pursuit of knowledge. Her interest in physics and mathematics began at a very early age, leading her to contemplate a teaching career before committing to research.
I had a good teacher in mathematics at high school and professors at university who influenced my choice towards atomic physics. But this interest in science is much older. It was my grandfather who inspired me; he was a researcher and teacher in radio technology and electricity and helped the resistance in France during World War II with radio techniques. It was about science helping society - an idea which I liked very much.
Influenced by prominent scientific figures at her university in France, including Nobel Laureates in Physics Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Serge Haroche, and an internship at the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique, Dr. L'Huillier's focus on atoms in strong laser fields defined her career. Notably, her work on high-order harmonic generation (HHG), acknowledged by the Nobel Prize, underscores her lasting scientific achievements. However, Dr. L'Huillier also takes pride in her early thesis and recent research. She also highlights her fulfilment in building a research group at Lund University in Sweden, where she currently works as a professor of atomic physics.
Navigating gender dynamics in science: the role of the MSCA in Dr. L'Huillier's career
Delving into the intricacies of her journey as a woman researcher, Dr. Anne L'Huillier sheds light on the gender dynamics inherent in her scientific path. While acknowledging the positive aspects of heightened visibility and potential invitations to programmes tailored for women in a field where men predominate, she also candidly outlines the challenges. Unconscious biases and occasional remarks attributing her success solely to gender have been hurdles to overcome.
I think that my career has been influenced by the fact that I am a woman. As a woman, you are in a field which is predominated by men, and of course, you are more visible. Maybe you get more invitations to conferences, for example, and benefit from programmes for women. The only thing I can say is that it has probably been a different career - with both positive and negative aspects.
The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions have played a crucial role in advancing her research. When embarking on a new career in Sweden amidst limited funding opportunities, the MSCA emerged as a lifeline, providing support in the form of postdoctoral positions and Innovative Training Networks (renamed Doctoral Networks under Horizon Europe).
The MSCA have been very important especially before the beginning of the European Research Council programme. This was at the end of the 90's and beginning of the millennium - the funding was not always very good. Therefore receiving support from the MSCA to train and supervise doctoral and postdoctoral fellows within a network was very important for me. I wrote the ATTO Marie Curie Network application in 1998, and several others afterwards. These Marie Curie networks were vital for the European community to interact. First, they gave positions to the labs, but then they pushed the interaction between the different groups. And I think this is why attosecond science is very strong in Europe - three Europeans received Nobel Prizes in this field. I think the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions have helped a lot to increase networking and communication among research actors.
Addressing gender disparities in STEM: challenges and optimistic trends
Recent statistics reveal a stark contrast in women's representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). While women constitute 48% of doctoral graduates in the EU, they represent only one third of the total number of researchers in Europe. Concerning potential solutions to this problem, Dr. L'Huillier acknowledges the intricacies linked to the issue. She highlights the broader societal context, emphasising the need for more role models.
Hopefully I can contribute to inspire women to stay in science - this is what I tried to say in my Nobel speech. Because the problem is that there are women who do their PhDs, but then they don't proceed with their careers. I think this may be partly due to the difficulty of getting a permanent position, a problem that exists everywhere in Europe. And this often coincides with the time when women have children, making it even more challenging.
Building on her optimism about the changing landscape for women in STEM, Dr. Anne L'Huillier emphasises the fortunately evolving trend of more women pursuing doctoral studies and staying in science.
I see more and more women becoming doctoral students and who stay in science. Although women's equal participation in STEM is a process that will take time, the slope is positive, and they need to know that things are improving. This is important because if there were no women in STEM, then humanity would be missing half of its possible researchers to push science forward.
When asked for advice for young girls aspiring to enter STEM disciplines, Dr. L'Huillier encourages them to absolutely pursue their interest in science. She passionately advocates for the compatibility of a scientific career with family life, challenging the notion that women must choose between the two. Drawing on her experience in Sweden, she highlights the flexible childcare and school systems that support parents in this country.
Contrary to the misconception that a career in science demands an overwhelming time commitment, she argues that passion and enjoyment can coexist with a balanced work-family life. Dr. L'Huillier views diversity as a catalyst for a creative and innovative research environment.
Research is done by groups of people, never by an individual person. And if research groups are diverse, you have different ideas and ways of seeing things. And this is where you have a truly creative environment.
Bridging careers: the MSCA as a stepping-stone in the career of young researchers
Dr. Anne L'Huillier underscores the transformative potential of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and encourages young researchers to consider applying to the programme.
The MSCA can be an important stepping-stone in the careers of young researchers. They are prestigious and give them some extent of freedom over what they wish to focus their research on.
L'Huillier credits the MSCA for having been crucial during the early stages of her career, laying the groundwork for her subsequent achievements.
On the value of the MSCA as a 'bottom-up' programme (which allows applicants to freely choose the research field they will work on), Dr. L'Huillier underscores the MSCA's unique support for both early-stage and experiences researchers when compared to similar programmes. At the same time, she points out the increased competitiveness to obtain an MSCA grant:
I would like to see more young researchers benefit from the MSCA.
Promising horizons for attosecond science: a glimpse into the future
Dr. L'Huillier paints a compelling picture of future advancements in her field, emphasising the nascent stage of using attosecond processes to probe electron dynamics. She envisions the potential use of novel techniques in unravelling the mysteries of interaction with radiation, offering insights that could pave the way for controlling fundamental phenomena. Dr. L'Huillier discusses the possibility of leveraging attosecond pulse techniques to understand and perhaps manipulate molecular processes. Additionally, she highlights the promising application of extreme ultraviolet radiation in metrology for integrated circuits, a development poised to impact the future of technology. With a blend of optimism and anticipation, Dr. L'Huillier foresees a future brimming with discoveries and innovations, underscoring the transformative potential of research in attosecond science.
Equal opportunities and inclusiveness in the MSCA
The EU is investing considerable resources in fostering gender-equal working environments, as part of the European Commission's Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, for example, places a strong emphasis on promoting gender, equal opportunities and a supportive environmentfor their fellows and projects, in line with the principles of the European Charter for Researchers. MSCA grants also allow for part-time work and parental leave. Under Horizon Europe, nearly 45% of all MSCA fellows are women, and they are more successful than men when applying for MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships.
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