What is your current position at PSI?
I am a researcher, but with a somewhat different mission than a researcher at the university.
I spend 50% of my time on a service mission, dealing with luminescence dosimetry measurements. This consists of routine work, but also of supervising a team of technicians, perfecting the technique, and communicating with the mandated authorities – mainly the FOPH (Federal Office of Public Health) when it comes to research facilities and the ENSI (Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate) for nuclear reactors. We are also the only experts in Switzerland able to measure neutrons. So we work for CERN and other accelerators in Europe.
During the other half of my time, my research is personal, I am very free. I like to develop materials capable of measuring radiation, which I try to characterize in a fundamental way. I would like to develop radiation-sensitive clothing: this would be very useful for people exposed to even a small risk of ionizing radiation.
Unlike at the university, as a researcher here, I do not have a teaching mission. PSI is a training centre, but these are courses for professionals who work with radiation.
What do you like about this job?
Very few places in the world give access to so much infrastructure, to such a concentration! Protons, photons, neutrons, muons, I can get beam time relatively easily for my research.
I like to progress constantly. I knew that I would learn a lot in this team, because I knew my current boss, who was an examiner for my thesis. I was not mistaken.
PSI is a physics institute, but also multidisciplinary. I easily collaborate with colleagues who see medical applications, for example in radiotherapy for cancer treatment. But there is also geology and chemistry. I appreciate this diversity.
What skills did you develop at the FGSE?
My postdoc project was to develop a technology. Thanks to my expertise in physics, I helped to establish a paramagnetic resonance laboratory, to implement and calibrate X-ray sources.
I was very independent, so I started to learn the management of a long-term project, to foresee all the phases. And since I brought an expertise that no one else had, I had to learn to make decisions. This stage was very useful.
During your PhD and your postdoc, did you prepare for your current role as team leader?
There is a big difference between my postdoc and the position at PSI. One is probably never really prepared for this kind of transition!
What struck me about the job interview was that I had prepared something very academic – about my research projects. But the jury already knew that my research was good, because of my publications... They quickly came up with questions like "How will you resolve conflicts in your team?", "How do you deal with difficult challenges?". I was totally unprepared for those kinds of questions. I wasn't very bright! Whether you go into industry, or continue in an academic career, these are questions you have to prepare for. You can't improvise!
What have you learned while working at this research institute?
At PSI, I discovered a "business" way of thinking. This institute is focused on technological transition. It hosts many start-ups and aims to bring fundamental research to application. That's the philosophy. I had to learn this mentality, a more industrial approach, which I did not have at all. For example, everything here is documented; it may seem too formal, but in the end, no expertise is lost! If someone leaves, you can find all the procedures they used with their extremely detailed instructions, in a centralized system. We don't use this kind of tool in academia. At the university, it's one person who has the know-how, who would have the instructions noted down, but they are not publicly available or saved in a centralized system.
I had to learn to document everything. That's something I didn't do enough before. It's also important at supervision meetings, to record what was agreed upon and what was discussed.
When you look back on your career, are there things you would do differently?
I was lucky enough to get a permanent position at a fairly young age, I was ready at the right time. In the end, everything worked out well for me, so I could say there's nothing to change! But I must say that I was very well prepared on the scientific side, not at all on the soft skills.
Until late in my thesis, I was into science, but a career in science requires more than science... You have to know how to communicate and how to manage a team. These aspects should not be neglected. At the beginning of your career, I understand that you don't want to devote energy to it, because it plays a lesser role in recruitment. But you have to be aware that in any career path, these communication and management skills are going to play a huge role. With my Spark grant, I ended up with my first postdoc relatively early. A little too early for me in the end. I wasn't very happy in that role, supervising a postdoc older than me.
Fortunately, now I love this aspect of the job, which is a big part of my mission. Over time, I have become comfortable in this leadership role. I know my expertise and that of my team well. I've learned how to run effective supervision meetings, project meetings. It helps that I like talking to people and I like presenting in public.
But I probably could have prepared better for this. It was a bit of a shock for me to have to learn all this at once. I've taken some team leadership training, but it's a lot of big words – "Empower your team". It's good that these courses exist, but it doesn't really prepare you for the real challenges. Having a coach, someone to follow me and guide me, would have been more useful for me. But are there institutions that offer this service?
And today, what are your professional plans and aspirations?
Career development is different at PSI. There is no faculty position. Here, I really have the time to do my 50% personal research, which is a luxury not given to all university professors!
I can also apply for my own grants, have my own funding, and it gives me enough freedom to do what I want. I have the expertise to develop new tools, and so I build collaborations with people who work on the application. I've learned over time that it saves time to collaborate with people who have the right expertise. I would like to continue developing instruments that can have applications, why not in geology!
Interview published on March 31, 2023.