Hélène Cecilia (@HelCecilia), French National Institute for Agricultural Research, is taking part in Soapbox Science Bristol on Saturday 15th July where she will be giving a talk called: “Turning biological events into equations and lines of code: the use of modeling in natural sciences”
SS: How did you get to your current position?
HC: Less than 2 years ago, I finished my degree in bioinformatics and modeling at INSA engineering school in Lyon, France. I did my master thesis with Sabine Hauert at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and had an amazing time there! I was working on a program simulating the delivery of nanoparticles in brain cancer and I was able to truly visualize how would this swarm of nanoparticles evolve in the tumour by running my program on a thousand coin-sized robots, called Kilobots, in an arena! I loved Bristol’s atmosphere and that’s why I decided to come back there for SoapBox Science even if I’m now working in France.
I work as an engineer at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Nantes, developing a model of population dynamics of tsetse flies based on data from Senegal. Tsetse flies transmit a parasite responsible for sleeping sickness in humans and nagana disease in livestock. It is widely present in Sub-Saharian Africa and is considered one of the biggest constraints to the economical development of these regions because of its implication in food insecurity and public health. Mathematical models are needed to simulate the evolution of tsetse flies populations in a given environment (knowing the temperature and the vegetation for instance) and decide what is the best strategy to eradicate the species sustainably. And the truth is… I have never seen a tsetse fly once in my life! That’s why I hope that in my future job (hopefully a PhD!), I will be able to take part in field work before developing a model, to see the entire process of research !
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
HC: Probably my dad. He worked as an auto mechanic and is fascinated by how motors work, or any technologies we use daily, even if he had no scientific background. He taught me curiosity and problem solving, which led me to engineering. Until the end of high school, I was also considering studying medicine. But what interested me the most in this field was finding new cures to diseases. In the end, I found a way to work towards this goal with bioinformatics.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
HC: When your lines of code are (finally!) able to reproduce what is expected to happen in the field, that’s always exciting! I even do some victory dance at my desk when it happens …
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
HC: I’m passionate about what I do, I often find myself talking about my research at parties and show my friends how cool it is! I am also a convinced feminist and I’ve seen too many people surprised when I say I love to code or play football, why should it be weird? I hope this event can help inspire some girls and fight some clichés!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
HC: I have not been working for very long, so I haven’t seen all the flaws yet! But I wish we could convince researchers of the importance of science outreach. It’s a win-win! Scientists and citizens can both learn a lot by speaking together, and we could prevent the rise of some ideological drift : science can help fight racism, sexism, climatoscepticism! But we have to make the facts understandable by everyone, and it takes a bit of effort. But it’s worth it!
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?
HC: I haven’t done a PhD yet so I’m not sure… But don’t let anyone tell what you can or cannot do, there is no such thing as « male-only » topics! If you’re curious and passionate about something, go for it. Go with the flow: stay opened to every opportunity and take the most out of it, do not censure yourself!