Claire Rossi, a science passionaria

Pro­fes­sor Claire Rossi, was appoint­ed Exec­u­tive Vice-Chan­cel­lor & Direc­tor of UTC on Decem­ber 8, 2022 for a five-year term of office.

Claire Rossi grew up in Lille; her moth­er who was an Eng­lish teacher and lat­er a nation­al edu­ca­tion inspec­tor and her father who was a lec­tur­er in law, then mag­is­trate and deputy direc­tor of eco­nom­ic law at the French Min­istry of Jus­tice. Now 43 years of age and fol­low­ing suit to eight pre­vi­ous direc­tors, she became the first female Direc­tor of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy of Com­pieg­ne 50 years after its cre­ation. Con­cern­ing her school and aca­d­e­m­ic career, Claire Rossi admits to a par­tic­u­lar fea­ture: “I went to school like every­one else until I was 10 years old, but then I was home-schooled, tak­ing cor­re­spon­dence cours­es from the CNED. I liked what had sup­posed to be a tem­po­rary solu­tion so much that I con­tin­ued at home till my baccalaureate.

What did this expe­ri­ence bring her? “It pro­vid­ed lots of flex­i­bil­i­ty. I worked in shifts, main­ly in the evening and even dur­ing part of the night. I was able to take cours­es at my own pace. I did, for exam­ple only maths one week, then physics anoth­er week and then chem­istry. Work­ing by block-stud­ies had a real advan­tage: I was able to progress more quick­ly through the pro­gramme. This sit­u­a­tion, which may seem some­what dis­joint­ed, suit­ed me well because it allowed me to work inde­pen­dent­ly. In a way, it pre­fig­ured the work of a research sci­en­tist who has to know how to man­age, adapt, etc.,” she says.

Did­n’t this dif­fer­ence in rela­tion to oth­ers restrict her social inter­ac­tions? “Not at all. I took part in var­i­ous activ­i­ties such as music, the­atre and sport. These activ­i­ties allowed me to mix with all sorts of peo­ple, dif­fer­ent cul­tures and dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing,” she says.

Did her rela­tion­ship with sci­ence dur­ing these years? “I was pas­sion­ate about sci­ence in gen­er­al, physics and chem­istry and espe­cial­ly palaeon­tol­ogy. From the start I want­ed to become a researcher in this spe­cial­ist field. My par­ents made enquiries and a researcher at the Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in Paris advised me to do a prepara­to­ry class to seek admis­sion to Ecole nationale supérieure (ENS),” says Claire Rossi.

Deter­mined, she fol­lowed this advice and signed up for a prepara­to­ry class. “But the prepara­to­ry class dis­ap­point­ed me, not so much because of the intense class­room rhythm but because of the over­rid­ing and per­va­sive cur­ricu­lum cram­ming aspect. Where is the added val­ue of a prep class teacher if in class he/she repeats for 2 hours what is in the text­book? The teacher must, in my opin­ion, offer a syn­the­sis, a vision, a rhythm and above all teach stu­dents to think for them­selves. This is what the lec­tur­er-cum-research sci­en­tists at UTC do, for exam­ple,’ she explains.

This was cer­tain­ly a dis­ap­point­ment, but it had the mer­it of giv­ing birth to anoth­er pas­sion: chem­istry. This is how she was admit­ted to the Ecole nationale supérieure de Chimie de Toulouse, since renamed INP-ENSIACET. Dur­ing her final year of engi­neer­ing stud­ies, she also com­plet­ed an advanced diplo­ma (DEA) in agrore­sources and was suc­cess­ful to do an intern­ship at the Struc­tur­al Biol­o­gy Insti­tute in Toulouse. “The world of research, the exper­i­ments car­ried out and the method­olog­i­cal con­struc­tion of research were a rev­e­la­tion for me. So I looked for a the­sis sub­ject in France and found one at UTC with Pro­fes­sor Joël Chopineau, who announced six months lat­er that he was going to set up a lab in the South. There were two alter­na­tives: either I fol­lowed him but the lab did­n’t exist yet, admit­ted­ly a bit risky. Or I could do it from a dis­tance. Hav­ing the expe­ri­ence of auton­o­my and sup­port­ed by the UTC-GEC team and Prof. Daniel Thomas, its direc­tor, I made the lat­ter choice,” she explains.

Her the­sis focused on ‘the inter­ac­tion of a tox­in from the per­tus­sis bac­teri­um with cells to deter­mine how the tox­in inter­act­ed with cell mem­branes and the dif­fer­ent modes of inser­tion of this tox­in’, she indicates.

After a post-doc at the Max Planck Insti­tute for Poly­mer Research in Ger­many, Claire Rossi first came to UTC as a lec­tur­er in 2007 and rose to the rank of uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor in 2016.

She has been a mem­ber of the UTC’s Board of direc­tors since 2017, and from August 2020 was the inter­im Direc­tor of the uni­ver­si­ty in the midst of a pan­dem­ic and lock-down. A peri­od when the life of the insti­tu­tion was slow­ing down, as was the case in most oth­er insti­tu­tions, but “the machine did not stop for all that”, she says. When the new Direc­tor arrived in Jan­u­ary 2021, she was asked to be his deputy, as she knew the uni­ver­si­ty so well. When Christo­pher Guy left in August 2022, she once again nat­u­ral­ly took over the duties of inter­im Admin­is­tra­tor. The skills and vision she has shown dur­ing these two years have made her decide to take the plunge and run for the uni­ver­si­ty’s top man­age­ment post.

Restoring agility to UTC

Ful­ly aware of her respon­si­bil­i­ties, Claire Rossi details the projects she intends to under­take at UTC.

What is her vision of the UTC? ” UTC was cre­at­ed 50 years ago to bridge the link between soci­ety, com­pa­nies, sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy in order to meet the chal­lenges of the day. It has devel­oped sev­er­al aspects: the adapt­abil­i­ty of the stu­dents through mod­u­lar train­ing, high-lev­el research in con­nec­tion with the indus­try, ter­ri­to­r­i­al anchor­ing but also the inter­na­tion­al vista. In this respect, UTC was a pio­neer estab­lish­ment,’ she says.

In her opin­ion, this dynam­ic has some­what run out of steam in recent years. Why? “There are, among oth­er things, cer­tain speci­fici­ties of our school that have inspired and been copied by oth­er estab­lish­ments, but also the mode of growth that we have expe­ri­enced. A lay­ered growth which means that the agili­ty of the ear­ly days has giv­en way to more cum­ber­some process­es which slow down inno­va­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty. We have to restore agili­ty to UTC”, Claire Rossi advocates.

Faced with major chal­lenges such as eco­log­i­cal and ener­gy tran­si­tions but also the health issues of the near future, what role can UTC play? “To man­age the com­ing crises, we will have to find solu­tions which do not exist yet. UTC, with its adap­tive, mod­u­lar train­ing mod­el, plus its agile and inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research is, in my opin­ion, well equipped to answer these chal­lenges. In fact, the fun­da­men­tals of the cre­ation of UTC are still rel­e­vant. They just need to be updat­ed so that we become a lead­ing school in the cre­ation of tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions by con­sid­er­ing all approach­es, and more specif­i­cal­ly those that are sober, eco-respon­si­ble and sus­tain­able, and that we do so in con­nec­tion with the ter­ri­to­ry and the Nation’s pri­or­i­ties in the sec­tor of green indus­tries,’ she emphasises.

At a time when sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy are more and more ques­tioned, Claire Rossi wish­es that the UTC reaf­firms sev­er­al aspects linked to its orig­i­nal val­ues: a more inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research at the ser­vice of a more sus­tain­able future, an evo­lu­tion­ary train­ing of the stu­dents, and to reopen itself more to companies.

More inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research? “It will be a ques­tion of defin­ing, with the lab­o­ra­to­ries and depart­ments, strong cross-cut­ting strate­gic themes such as sus­tain­able cities and mobil­i­ty, the health of the future or dig­i­tal tran­si­tion and devel­op­ing, beyond the dis­ci­pli­nary excel­lence that is already ours, a high­er lev­el of inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty,” she asserts.

What about stu­dent train­ing? “We need to strength­en the mod­u­lar­i­ty and project-based train­ing in which we are already excel­lent, in par­tic­u­lar by encour­ag­ing the devel­op­ment and exper­i­men­ta­tion of new con­cepts by stu­dents over a longer peri­od of time — one or even two years — dur­ing which they work on and test their con­cepts, the asso­ciate pro­to­types and under­ly­ing ideas. In a word: they should be actors in their own approach. Some of them will prob­a­bly “break their teeth”. So they will have to learn to cope with fail­ure but, above all, to bounce back,” she says.

A greater open­ness towards com­pa­nies? “It will be a ques­tion of facil­i­tat­ing the inter­ac­tions of research lab­o­ra­to­ries with com­pa­nies so that com­pa­nies take own­er­ship of these strate­gic cross-cut­ting themes on which we will dis­play our posi­tion­ing. Thus, we must be able to pro­pose inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to a com­pa­ny that sub­mits a seem­ing­ly unfea­si­ble project to us thanks to our new inter­dis­ci­pli­nary vision,” Claire Rossi explains.

Oth­er projects await her. “Among oth­er things, we must dis­play and make rapid progress on the insti­tu­tion’s com­mit­ment to sus­tain­able devel­op­ment and social respon­si­bil­i­ty, fur­ther devel­op our inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and part­ner­ships in Europe, fur­ther strength­en our action with­in the Sor­bonne Uni­ver­si­ty Alliance, our links with oth­er uni­ver­si­ties of tech­nol­o­gy and work close­ly with local insti­tu­tions,” she concludes.

Le magazine

Novembre 2023 - N°61

Activité physique, nutrition & santé

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram