Voices of Women in Genomics – An Interview with Valérie Verdier

Interview conducted and written by Modesta Abugu

Valérie Verdier is the Chairwoman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD-France). Her research interests are Plant/microbe interactions (on tropical crops), Molecular plant-microbe interactions, Plant disease resistance, Epidemiosurveillance in Africa, and Capacity building. She has co-authored over 100 scientific publications and is renowned for her fundamental contributions to understanding the mechanisms by which bacteria cause diseases, especially those afflicting cassava and rice and to the approaches developed to control them.

In this interview, she tells us about her career and how mentorship from a fellow woman has inspired her success.

Congratulations on your appointment as the CEO of the IRD, let start with getting to know about your career. How did you get to this position?

I got my PhD in plant science from Université Paris-Sud in 1988. Since then, I have occupied different local and international positions in Central Africa, West Africa, Latin America and the United States. In particular, I was an associate researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia from 1995 to 2001 and an associate researcher at Universidad de los Andes (Colombia) in 2007. In 2010, I worked with Jan Leach on different projects and she encouraged me to apply for the Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission.  This fellowship opened up many networking opportunities for me. I became a guest researcher at the School of Global Environmental Sustainability from 2012 to 2013, and affiliate scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI-BeCA) in Kenya in 2013. In 2014, I was given the Excellence in International Service Award from the American Phytopathology Society (APS) and was appointed to the rank of Knight of the French Legion of Honour in 2016.

One major highlight in my career was heading two major departments in IRD after 2015. I was appointed the director of the Plants Micro-organisms Interactions with the Environment (IPME) joint research unit in IRD. At the same time, a new CEO joined the organization and asked me to head one of the five scientific departments of the organization. This was a big responsibility for me because it required coordinating IRD activities on Ecology, biodiversity and functioning of the inland ecosystems (ECOBIO). While taking up all these positions, I was also conducting research on the interactions between phytopathogenic bacteria and tropical plants, an understanding of which is crucial to food safety. It was a bit challenging to have both responsibilities at the same time but the professional experience I got abroad gave me some leverage and exposure on handling these responsibilities in a big research organization like IRD.

That is a lot of experience and its inspiring to learn about them. What is IRD?

IRD is a French public research institution, that defends and promotes equitable scientific partnership. We promote interdisciplinary and citizen science committed to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. We work in many different scientific topics and we design evidence-based solutions adapted to major challenges like pandemics, humanitarian and political crisis and so on. Currently, we have about 75 research units scattered all over the world with about 2,500 permanent positions with 30% of this number located offsite.

You mentioned that you did some work with Jan Leach. Could you tell us some more about how you two met?

Dr. Jan Leach, Plant Growth Facilities, CSU, 2017 © Colorado State University

Jan is a tremendous woman and a mentor. We’ve known each other for a long time and she is an expert on rice diseases and genomics. Before I met her, I was working on cassava and was actually one of the first women that started genomics in cassava. My institution then suggested we work on rice disease and Jan was the international leader on this project at that time. As a new person in rice genomics research, Jan opened her network of collaboration worldwide for me in the early 2000s. Then I decided to focus on Africa including some genomics work on pathogen and rice genomics. Jan proposed I should go for a sabbatical and I decided to apply for a Marie Curie Fellowship. The project was instrumental in trying to understand the diseases and pathogens affecting rice in Africa especially the interaction between rice and pathogens.

What is it like being a renowned female scientist and Woman in Genomics in France?

I don’t think that I’m a “female scientist” or a “female genomics experts” (Laughs). I say this because to me, science should have no gender. There should be no female or male scientists and there is no French specificity to that. What is paramount is that we all are experts using scientific techniques in various fields to improve the quality of life for people.

In my work, I’ve come in contact with a lot of collaborators over the world – China, Europe, North America, Africa – and Jan was very strategic in exposing me to most women in Genomics all over the world. As a woman, it is a thing of pride to be in the sciences, and our ability to work together makes it worth the while.

In science, there should be no discrimination between male or female scientists. What is important is experts using their scientific knowledge to improve the quality of life for people.”

Unfortunately, most women don’t have a point of reference to get into this profession. There are very few women who have attained this position I am today and most of us go through a series of challenges to get here. The society has made it easier for the male scientists and that should not be the case. Being the first internal CEO of IRD, I encounter people on the outside who try to belittle my position

This should not be the case in science. Women should not be subjected to extra work just to prove their qualification. Being a woman doesn’t mean less knowledge, or power, or skillset, or leadership ability than a man. There are lots of women who do science better than men and we should be given a level playing field to show that.

That is why women empowerment have been of paramount importance to us in IRD. Our former CEO already placed female scientists in leading positions in the organization. I am going to continue with this work through supporting young female scientists in the organization attain a high level of position in their career.

That brings me to my next question which is how will your role in IRD impact other women in science?

I have been working as the coordinator of two Jeunes Equipes Associées à l’IRD (JEAI), a program which mentors young researchers in developing countries to form a team, through the completion of a research project and training through research. In this work, we have engaged and trained a number of women to strengthen their leadership and networking skill. This we will continue to do.

Coming down to IRD, I have plans to increase flexibility in our role to help women create a balance between their family and career, so that can do both and come out successful. In this job, I have realized women struggle with a lot of low self-esteem. They automatically assume that the men know better and hesitate to err their opinions or ask questions during meetings. We are going to work on this by creating an equal opportunity between the male and female scientists. Our women need a lot of training and empowerment so they will believe in themselves and understand that they are capable of doing whatever they want to be. In addition, we will work with women in developing countries and invest more in scientific female colleagues to increase access to more resources and mentorship for them.

That is promising. Finally, what advice do you have for early career female scientists?

Go! Go!! Go!!! (laughs). Genomics is a wonderful profession and you have all it takes to excel. Do not sensor yourselves. Reach out to mentors. We will work together to encourage each other and improve on our careers, and don’t let the confusion between personal and work life to get to you because you are capable and can do it. We are always in doubt and if we conquer such self-doubt, we will be able to handle other pressures.

September 2014, Dr. Valerie Verdier and Jillian Lang coordinate molecular diagnostics workshop at BecA-ILRI, Nairobi, Kenya @Colorado State University
The main focus of the IPPWG team’s projects is on the interactions between Xanthomonas bacteria and their hosts, particularly in rice, cassava and citrus fruits. ©IPME