Adria Le Boeuf

Interview Drs Alumni: 60 minutes with Adria Le Boeuf

What is essential is to be in tune with what inspires you. Don’t just let the path lead you forward, but make your own path based on what excites you. It is being sensitive to what you like, and it is trusting, listening and having confidence in yourself to make it happen.

  • Birth date: October, 28th 1982
  • Date of PhD graduation: June 2011, lab of Jim Hudspeth at Rockefeller University
  • Postdoctoral research: Working between the laboratories of Laurent Keller and Richard Benton, initiator and manager of a project studying the mechanisms by which an individual ant can alter the behavioural maturation of her colony through socially exchanged fluids.
  • Current position: Scientist and Science Communicator, Postdoctoral researcher at FBM, UNIL, lecturer for the FBE, UNIL and founder & director of The Catalyst

Drs Alumni Network: Tell us more about your experience as a BSc. Student in Biology?

Adria: For my bachelors’ degree, I studied at the College of Creative Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. It was a very small college within a big university, which allowed me to focus on research. I had a sort of unusual Bachelor experience because I could explore whatever topic I wanted to work on. I finished my Bachelors in three years rather than four because I could take as many classes as I wanted. And then I stayed an extra two years as a lab technician to finish my research before going on to my PhD. My bachelor’s experience was very research heavy, but it was what I wanted.

Why were you interested in undertaking a PhD?
From the end of my bachelors, through the time I was a technician, I got to work closely on a project with a graduate student, where we did all experiments together and then published together. The intellectual joy of figuring things out is really satisfying. Thus, deciding I wanted to do a PhD was not difficult for me. Actually, more difficult was deciding to wait those two years and keep working in a lab before going onto a PhD. But I am really glad I did, because in the US, we do not usually do masters programs before the PhD, so it gave me an experience of research before the PhD.

And what did you do in parallel to your studies?
When I started my PhD in New York, I started an improvisational theatre group; I taught scientists how to improvise and learn how to feel comfortable talking in front of others. After a few years, the Dean of the University asked us to stage a science play, Photograph 51 (by Anna Ziegler). Before coming to Lausanne, we performed the play: I got to play Rosalind Franklin. It was very meta! And such a good experience! During my postdoc at UNIL, I started another improvisational group that quickly became The Catalyst, which not only teaches scientists to improvise, but creates new media for the public about science. I was also involved in TEDx Lausanne, i.e. like TED talks, but locally organized. This gave me a lot of experience in coaching people to convey their ideas well. This is very important for science and academics more generally.

How do you switch from science to art and vice-versa?
The switching… it is tricky. Part of the reason I currently wear so many hats, is because for a while I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. We hear so much about the horrible academic job market; it is scary. I love science, but also science communication! In the end, I realized that if I were to do only science communication, I would not be satisfied. That made it clear to me that I must continue in research. For me the two go together. Right now, because I plan to stay in research, I am decreasing my activities in science communication, even if it is a pleasure. That’s what I do in the evenings. When it comes to be six or seven pm, it is time to go play.

Do you think you are taking a new kind of “role” in society?
I hope so. I think that the role of the scientist is to help us understand our world. As the world becomes more and more scientific, we need to have art that deals with science. And in order for that art to deal accurately with science, scientists need to be involved with artists to create good new art that helps us understand our world.

Do you define yourself as a scientist, or an artist?
Both. Primarily I am a scientist, but I’m not just a scientist. I am a scientist and I am an artist.

What about the difficulties to combine art and science?
It is difficult in terms of the way people perceive you. When I was working on the “Blue Butterfly” play, it was very hard to manage the time, because there were so many things to set up. It was a huge learning experience that gave me a lot of wisdom about how to manage large groups of people, and financially managing an ambitious project. At that time, many people probably perceived that I was more involved in the play than in my research, whether or not it was true. That was the cost to my investment in science communication.

And what about the strengths you use to carry on your projects?
Passion. I don’t like boundaries, when people say, “You cannot do this”. Or, “it is not done like that”. Or, “we do not do that”. If I want to do something, I will do it, especially for creative things, like experiments or artistic endeavors. The strength I have is to be passionately enthusiastic. I have learned that this skill really brings people on board and gets them involved in projects. Being a good leader has been important to learn along the way.

How do you imagine the evolution of your career and of your life?
Now I am applying and interviewing for group leader positions and hopefully I will get one of them. I have my own lab and lead a research program. I’m sure that whenever I go, there will be science and improvisation. If it is not already there, I will start it. Currently, there are only a few renown proponents of mixing science and improvisation. The actor Alan Alda (Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University) and Prof. Uri Alon (Weizmann Institute, see his TED talk “Why science demands a leap into the unknown”) are two of them. I would be very happy to stay in Switzerland, but there are not so many open research positions. Let’s just say that I’m casting a broad net right now with my applications.

Which are the skills necessary for a multidisciplinary career?
Multidisciplinary can be both in the sciences, and also in terms of non-science. I am also multidisciplinary in my science, i.e. I have worked in molecular biochemistry, biophysics, and now with ants, thus it is quite broad. What is essential is to be in tune with what inspires you. Don’t just let the path lead you forward, but make your own path based on what excites you. It is being sensitive to what you like, and it is trusting, listening and having confidence in yourself to make it happen.

Do you think that being multidisciplinary is helpful?
Ahem… It is a complicated question. Yes and no. I think it depends on who you are. Personally, it really expands my awareness of what is available. My experience through the TEDxLausanne allowed me to work with people in business and NGOs. I feel I now have a better idea of what I am able to do in the future. The feeling to be beneficial outside of the lab is really important in terms of self-evaluation. I think that swimming in different circles is very healthy.

What does your PhD degree mean to you?
My PhD was about learning biophysics. I chose the lab I worked in because I wanted to learn that topic, not so much because I was inspired by friction in the inner ear. Doing a PhD is about learning to troubleshoot, to ask questions, to figure something out. Working in different disciplines means you have to learn how to answer questions differently. Because each discipline has different ways of answering questions and different problems, e.g. you have different artefacts, different types of ‘noise’ and different needs for statistics. Working in different domains gives you the sense of how subjective an answer is. My PhD was a wonderful experience in learning about myself, and also learning how to answer questions.

And what about your postdoctoral experience at UNIL?
My postdoctoral experience has been much more about how to stand on my own feet and get what I want. I feel that I know what it is to do research now. It was more about how I can create my own scientific story. Also, my postdoctoral experience was not only a scientific one: The Catalyst has been a life-changing experience.

What would be your advice to a PhD student regarding their career development?
They should be sensitive to what they like. There are always things that make us feel miserable during a PhD, with our bosses, or when an experiment does not work. But it is important to remember the things that we really enjoy. And let this guide our awareness, of both what you like and what you need, because it is not necessarily the same. For example, I need some improvisation and creativity happening in my life. But I wouldn’t like to do just that. Even though the research is hard, it is rewarding in a certain way.

Which people have marked your personal and professional path?
I like people that do multiple things. A person that I really respect is Prof. Uri Alon who I coached for his TEDx talk (before he got picked up by TED). He also does science and improvisation. I met him at a conference during my first year as PhD student, and he encouraged me to start my first improv group. I doubt he realized how instrumental that was for me. A person on the UNIL campus, who is really inspiring, is Dr. Lucia Prieto Godino (a postdoctoral fellow). She is a great scientist and she runs an organization called TReND in Africa (a charity dedicated to improving university level science education and research in Africa). There is also by former lab colleague and a classical pianist, Jonathan Fisher, who now has his own research group at New York Medical College. He started a project called Neurodome to bring together neuroscience and astronomy, i.e. you explore the brain in a planetarium! This is an example of someone who is passionate about astronomy and neuroscience, and he brought his two passions together.

Does improvisation help you to be more in contact with what you want?
Maybe. One of the most essential tools of improvisation is the idea: “yes and…“ This is the reality, we accept it and we continue on this idea. And so you build, build and build… Often in science, you are just cutting and saying “NO!” to things. But in improvisation you have to build and expand. Applying this thinking to science, it allows you to say “OK, if this reality is correct, what else might be true?”.

A place at UNIL you love?
From behind the green houses, if you walk towards the Grange de Dorigny, above the Banane, up there, there is a forest. There is an obelisk up there in the woods. I do not know what is for, nor what it means! (Said with glazing eyes & a smile)

Interview: Laura De Santis
Une publication de l’Ecole doctorale de la Faculté de biologie et de médecine de l’UNIL.

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