What is your scientific background?
Originally, I’m an engineer, but in the French way of the word (so, as I’ve been asked before, no I don’t build bridges!). My area is Agronomy and I specialised in Animal Science & Animal Production at AgroParisTech, in Paris.
I then moved to Edinburgh to start my Ph.D. in Applied Animal Behaviour at Scotland’s Rural College. My Ph.D. project was actually a collaboration between four institutions (Scotland’s Rural College, the University of Edinburgh, INRA and Agreenium Doctoral School), across two countries and with 5 supervisors! My Ph.D. was about the perception of emotions in sheep and goats, how sheep perceive the emotional states of other sheep in their group, and I was mostly interested in facial expressions of emotions. (Which might seem surprising in sheep, I know !)
How did you choose your field of study?
I was more of a city girl, I come from a family of teachers with no link to agriculture or the rural world, so everybody was a bit surprised when I chose to specialise in Animal Science and Production. During my MSc, I had the opportunity to do a year of internships and went to work at CSIRO in Armidale, Australia. There, I was part of the Animal Behaviour and Welfare team, and that’s how I discovered the field. Researchers and technicians in the team were all great people who loved sharing their work and encouraging young students by giving them real responsibilities.
This team was also one of the most involved in the application of a new method to study emotions in animals to farm species (mainly sheep). That’s how I discovered cognitive bias and how with a fairly simple test you could gain access to the “feelings” of animals, ask them how they feel about elements of their day to day life. Finding ways to assess emotions in farm animals has been a hot topic in Applied Animal Behaviour for about a decade. I discovered this area almost by chance, thanks to my work placement, but I became passionate about it and then had the opportunity to do a Ph.D. in animals’ emotions.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
Physically and mentally, probably farm work, which is the equivalent of field work for Applied Animal Behaviour! As any scientist studying animals can tell you, animals are REALLY good at finding inventive ways of not doing what you planned for them. When you spent months carefully designing an experiment, that involves training sheep to learn a task for instance, and that they seem to fail to learn for days after days, after days, it can be really hard to cope. I have found myself sobbing in a pen many times; thankfully sheep can be great cuddle-machines too! You have to be able to re-adjust your plans and flexibility is definitely a very important part of working with animals, as well as patience!
On a more practical point of view, well, sheep, goats or dairy cows are fairly large animals, not always easy to handle on your own, and farm environment always involve a lot of heavy lifting. I’ve never been fitter than after 3 months of farm work though!
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
A lot! Whether it is when a paper gets rejected, when an experiment doesn’t run as smoothly as you expected, when you get harsh comments from a supervisor. Being a scientist is not always easy, and being constantly subjected to the judgement of your peers can be very hard. Especially as a Ph.D. student, it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to not have produced the perfect first draft, it’s OK to disagree with your supervisors, it’s OK to feel overwhelmed sometimes. I feel like this is something many Ph.D. students forget, even though it’s in the title: they are still students and here to learn!
Discussing difficulties with fellow students was the greatest help during my Ph.D., this is how you realise that you are not the only one struggling and that everybody has moments when they feel useless, even the other students who seem to be doing so so well!
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I would say that it can be difficult, especially at the stage where I’m at now: end of Ph.D. and looking for jobs or postdocs, trying to find a way to preserve your personal life while looking for the job you studied so long for, but that could potentially be across the world. My partner is really understanding, and he has also enjoyed the opportunities for travel that my “being away for science” have offered!
However, I feel that the pressure put on early career researchers to go away is difficult to handle, especially as it is often for short-term jobs. When I see people hopping from one continent to the next every 2 years for 10 years, it scares me!
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
As I said, I just finished my Ph.D. and I’m just about to make a step aside from academic research and to join a great animal welfare charity, Compassion in World Farming.
I love research, I’m still passionate about science, but I wanted to have a more active role and to feel more like I was making a real difference in terms of improving farm animal welfare. With this new job, I will be able to be a link between the latest animal welfare research and the real world, to communicate about it to different actors of the food business industry and hopefully to implement real changes.
Hopefully, I will still be involved in research projects on the side, as there is still so much to do to understand animal emotions, and cool projects to build up from the research I did in my thesis!