My name is Fanny Lefloch, and I am currently working at the Institute of Chemistry and Materials in East Paris, near Paris, and I am doing a thesis in chemistry, where the objective is to develop nanotransporters. These are drugs that will be able to be brought specifically to the level of the cells that are sick. What we are trying to treat is a kidney disease that leads to the degradation of the kidney membrane. At present, there is no treatment for this disease, so we propose a curative treatment.
What has been your career path?
I have a somewhat transversal background since I started with a biology training, a technical training over two years, and then I went directly to the third year of university, on a path rather at the interface between chemistry and biology, and then to engineering school in Strasbourg, where I discovered chemistry, and in particular polymers, which are now my specialty.
What is a polymer?
Polymers are what we know as the basis of plastics, it is a unit, which will be repeated many times. You have to think of it as a pearl necklace, it's a long chain. There are polymers that can be derived from oil, but there are also polymers that can be derived from nature. For example, cellulose, found in wood, is a polymer that comes from nature. I use one that is present in the shell of crustaceans. It is called chitosan. To treat kidney disease, we will recover this polymer from marine waste and use it to form nano-transporters.
These nano-transporters will contain the drug inside, and around it there will be an envelope. We work with a team of doctors, they give us the drug that we will put inside, and I create the envelope around it. I will give particular characteristics to this envelope so that it will be able to move in the body, and so that it will be able to recognize specifically the cells of the kidney, to be able to release the drug specifically at this place, inside the cell.
And the trick is that when the envelope is inside the cell, it recognizes the environment which is a little bit particular, and it will be able to open and release the drug at the place where we want it to have a therapeutic effect.
Are there many women in chemistry?
The field of chemistry is fairly evenly matched since there are almost as many men as women, which is not necessarily the case in all research fields. At the bachelor's and master's levels, women are in the majority, but from the doctoral level onwards they become a minority, with less than 50% of women, and as researchers, they are only 34%. We are witnessing a "leaky pipeline" syndrome where women are less inclined to move to the "next step".
This phenomenon can also be seen, for example, when we organize events, where if we try to respect parity during these events, which is often the case, it will sometimes be more complicated to find as many men as women to intervene because the leaders, at the moment, are mostly men. I think that there are more and more women who are really recognized, who will be present. We saw this last year because the two Nobel Prizes in chemistry were awarded to two women. So there is a growing place for women, and this is going in the right direction, we are rather confident on this side.
Did you feel any difficulties because of being a woman?
Honestly no, it's not something I felt during my studies. But as a woman, let's say at the level of education, the socio-cultural context makes us a little less inclined than men to dare, to have this entrepreneurial side, to challenge. This can also be seen in the job offers we apply for. There are studies that show that for the same job offer, a woman will apply if she meets 75% of the criteria, whereas a man will apply even if he only meets 50%. That's really what it is, it's the "daring" part. But with time, we start to gain more confidence in ourselves, and I put less barriers on that side.
The next barrier I think I might face is when I'm approaching 30, with the possibility of getting pregnant. That's where the disparity is; whether women want to have children or not, there are not the same opportunities that are going to be offered, especially all these career boosts that you can have, for example going abroad for three months, a lot of travel, and that's when you start to have a gap. But many programs exist. At Merck, I was integrated into a young talent program, and the idea is to follow certain women and boost their careers so that they can break through the glass ceiling.