Recycling carbon dioxide

With an engineering degree from the Ecole Polytechnique and a PhD in condensed matter physics and chemistry, Sophie Carenco is working on a highly topical issue: the creation of new materials for transforming CO2, a cheap, inexhaustible raw material, into products of greater value. We are impressed not only by her ambitious and difficult work but also by her sense of team spirit and her drive. She took the time to tell us more.

Do you have a scientific dream?

“Miracle” is quite an ambiguous word in science! It implies that something “works” but that we don’t understand why… whereas my aim is precisely to understand what happens in the chemical reactions I use to make my materials: that’s my daily objective.

I think you have to remain humble in your ambitions and always bear in mind that a research project is a long-term process involving the efforts of an entire team. And you have to be aware of the “economy of promises” on which science funding relies. Today we are obliged to promise the earth in the funding applications we submit, but we must be mindful that, as with any creative process, it takes time for a new concept to mature.

Thankfully, that doesn’t mean one can’t dream! For my part, I would like the materials I study (that contain no precious metals) to be used within a decade to convert CO2 into more useful molecules, or for one of the other catalytic reactions at the core of energy conversion devices (hydrogen storage, fuel cell, etc.). The strategies we adopt for making materials should in theory make them accessible to everyone, at low cost to the environment and our energy resources. I think that counts as much as their intrinsic performance.

How did you decide to opt for a scientific career?

It was a gradual process. At secondary school, I was a good student and liked all subjects, but I particularly liked sinking my teeth into a problem… being confronted with a new situation and trying to understand it. There’s a combination of the sense of wonder I feel at the contemplation of a phenomenon which seems to be magical at first (like magnetism for example) and my stubborn side that pushes me to want to work out what’s going on. So I’ve always leaned towards the experimental sciences, of which chemistry calls for both observation and creativity: we are lucky to be studying something we make with our own hands. It’s a privilege, but also a trap - because it means that the quest, the search, is never-ending. That probably sums up why I’m a researcher today!

What aspect of your work do you particularly like?

There are many, but I’ll try to focus on the main ones: I like the creative aspect above all (of both manual labour and conceptual work), the interactions, discussions and debate with other researchers of all ages, the international, cosmopolitan environment of research and the buzz of ideas. I also like the idealistic, selfless (well, sometimes at least!) side of this job: the quest to go beyond the self and the desire to do better.

Tell us more about the creative aspect.

For me, science and creativity cannot be dissociated. Creativity is the driving force that moves the whole thing forward. It’s not about “being right” or “finding” something, as we sometimes think: being right means concluding the argument, and finding something means you stop looking. On the contrary, creativity seems to me to be the positive side of doubt: you’re not sure so you need to find out, and for that you develop theories, devices and experiments. One is not creative by choice. This is a fundamental need and that’s somewhere scientists and artists find common ground.

It’s also why I enjoy science – forget the exercises with emptying bathtubs and multiplication tables. We can use whatever means necessary (even the craziest!) to advance the frontiers of human knowledge.

Obviously, there are aspects of scientific work that are less glamorous but necessary, like applying for funding, finding a position, responding to assessments and so on. Then again, a framework and a minimum amount of monitoring are required to justify the investment that society makes in its scientists!

Sophie Carenco received a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014.

For Women in Science

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