Making a bee line for science

Dr Aurore Avarguès-Weber specialises in the study of the mechanisms at the origin of social insect behaviour, in particular bees. Her work shows the capacity these insects have to attain cognitive levels comparable to that of mammals! Learn all about this young mother, who is very committed to the promotion of science.

What is your work about?

My work is contributing to the discovery and understanding of the impressive cognitive abilities of bees, which are sometimes comparable to that of primates. It is fascinating to think that an insect, with a tiny brain and such a short life, can count for example! This poses questions about their brain mechanisms, which are probably very efficient given their limited number of neurons. Beyond enriching human curiosity towards the animal world, this research can help us better understand brain functioning thanks to the relative simplicity of our study model, with possible links to research in human neurobiology. What's more, our work is of particular interest for the development of miniature flying robots, with visual recognition and decision-making abilities as effective as those of bees.

What do you expect from science in general?

I am particularly fascinated by the progress being made in the constructive interaction between technology and medicine. I am looking forward to the time when all patients can benefit from an artificial heart, limbs or eyes, for example.

In addition, since I am very anxious about the inescapable shortage of raw materials on the earth, implying destruction of nature and halting development, I hope that science will find much more effective solutions in the areas of energy and recycling in the near future. 

How did you decide to become a scientist? 

My dream to study animal behaviour came quite simply from watching nature documentaries which inspired a real fascination in me towards the diversity, complexity and visible adaptation of their behaviour to their environment. I don't particularly like animals on an emotional level. I don't have a pet and I don't particularly feel the need to have a relationship with an animal, but I like to observe them in their environment and try to understand their behaviour.

Then, during my studies in this area, I realised that what I was most passionate about, and what stimulated me most, was cognitive ethology, or the study of animal intelligence. As well as my interest in making discoveries in this area, I also appreciate the intellectual exercise required to develop scientific protocols allowing me to test these animals' abilities and avoiding misleading interpretations while being unable to give direct instructions to the animals, nor really communicate with them.

Finally, pursuing my career to this point has also been about luck, with the choice of a promising project during my thesis and supervisors who encouraged me to continue.

What is your personal experience in the scientific world as a woman?

Out of numerous female students under my thesis supervisor, some of whom were very brilliant, I am one of the only ones to have pursued a career. In all honesty, it was also opportunistic as I went with my partner, who is also a researcher, to London, where he had secured a post-doctoral contract. I didn't imagine that I would manage to continue in research after my first post-doctoral post, nor that I would want to. How could I reconcile a flourishing family life with dedicating so much attention and energy to my work? The thought of stopping research became harder and harder to accept as I progressed further. I had the enormous luck of holding an "agrégation" qualification (civil service exam allowing entrance into certain posts in France education system), so had the opportunity to go into teaching, but I decided to continue because so many doors were opening in front of me, without demanding too much sacrifice in my personal life.

I have felt in the past that my directors were investing less in my career potential than that of my male colleagues, but I understand this because the fact is that most women give up their careers. Unfortunately, even though it's not intentional, it makes more women believe that there is no possibility for success without too great a sacrifice in their personal life.

However, I suffer from the same constraint as other women aiming for important positions in the private sector, and this is absolutely not specific to scientific careers: maternity leave and children at home have their effect on a CV which is inevitably less developed and limits productivity.

Yet, to end on an optimistic note, with a comparable CV, I feel that my male colleagues and peers value my qualities even more because I have children: that impresses them. 

Dr Aurore Avarguès-Weber received a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014, and is part of the 2015 L'Oréal-UNESCO International Rising Talents.

For Women in Science

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