Intervista a Catherine Langlais

Catherine Langlais, you are deputy director of the R&D department of Saint- Gobain, a prestigious and challenging professional position. How did you become interested in sciences?
In high school, I was interested as much in the humanities as in sciences. When the most prestigious Faculty of Engineering, the "École Polytechnique", allowed the access to women in 1972, Anne Chopinet was admitted and this pushed me to try to do the same. I thought I could practice a profession in sciences while keeping the literature for my spare time, the opposite being more difficult. The following year, I went to the "École des Mines" of Nancy where I became an engineer. To motivate young people to engage into sciences, I strongly believe in the strength of models just as much as Anne Chopinet was for me. Also, when I held positions of responsibility, I have always strived to be an example, to show researchers that women can excel in sciences and take up careers quite similar to those of men, while having children, if they wish, and a happy private life.

Which path led you to the research on materials at Saint-Gobain?
Since the years at the École des Mines, I have become interested in renewable energies. I spent the last part of my studies analyzing solar houses at the CNRS laboratory in Odeillo, where the huge solar oven is equipped with mirrors manufactured by Saint-Gobain. Then I spent a year at Stanford University in California to get a Master in Mechanical Engineering. When I returned to France, solar energy had not been developed enough to allow me to find a job there and then I remembered the well-performing mirrors at Saint-Gobain. So I applied for a job in this company, attracted by their research on building insulation. I was hired as a young researcher at Isover, a subsidiary of Saint-Gobain. My first studies were devoted to understanding heat and mass transfer within fibrous insulators. These works, which led me to set up several collaborations with French academic laboratories specialized in porous media, pursued very concrete industrial goals. I thus discovered one of the greatest satisfactions that industrial research can provide: having to find a solution to applied problems, relying on a very thorough scientific understanding of them.

I spent twenty years at the Isover R&D center in France. I appreciated the various positions that were offered to me: team leader, project manager, department manager, etc. I took care with joy of the education of my two children during this period. My husband has always shared with me the daily tasks. I would never have had this career if he had not helped and supported me. In all these years, I have learnt that the quality of the time you spend with your family is more important than its quantity.

I invested a lot in my work, while I learnt to accept that perfection is not always possible! I was then appointed Director of the Research Center of Saint-Gobain in Aubervilliers where I spent eleven years, before taking my current role. During these eleven years and thanks to the work of all the teams, the perimeter of the Center has expanded and its activities, which historically concerned “glass”, have been extended to all those of the group (in particular plaster, concrete and habitat in general). In this growth context, the workforce has grown from 270 to more than 400 people and I was able to contribute to make teams more international (the proportion of foreign researchers rising from a few percent to about 23%) and to the inclusion of more women (29% to 36%).

What are your main appointments and responsibilities?
Since 2011, I have been in charge, in particular, of the coordination of the network of the major research centers of Saint-Gobain (three in Europe, one in the USA, one in India and one in China), so as to offer a coherent and effective model to the different “businesses”. I also coordinate some cross-cutting research programs concerning material science.

From 2010 to 2013, I was Vice President of the High Council for Science and Technology, with the task of enlightening the government on all matters relating to the broad guidelines of the nation, in terms of scientific research policy, transfer of technology and innovation. We submitted several reports that did not always have the echo we wished for! For twenty years I have also been a member of the Roberval Prize, prize for books and technology communication, which has the objective of fostering the development of a francophone technological culture. Finally, since 2013, I have been part of the Academy of Technology.

Who were your mentors or models during this brilliant career?
My mentors were men who believed in me and have offered me greater and greater responsibilities. I owe them a lot. I did not really have any female model during those years when I was surrounded basically by men. I have progressed throughout my career thanks to the people around me, who inspired me with good examples and identifying the bad ones! I often say that I learnt as much from my teams as from my superiors.

Every leader, male or female, has his/her own style and I’m not sure there’s a specific recipe for leading a team. For my part, if I had to list some ingredients, they would be: to have a clear vision of the project and to share it with the team; to listen to others and to help them to succeed; to give a positive example by working hard and striving to reach the excellence; to remain true to yourself knowing your weaknesses and strengths; to love your job and to do it with pleasure.

What are your relations with academic research?
I did science in industry, but always in close connection with the academic world, and in a context of great diversity. Saint- Gobain has several mixed units with the CNRS, including that of Aubervilliers. The directors of the research of Saint-Gobain I have known have always given great importance to academic collaborations and to training through research. In Aubervilliers, 80% of our researchers have a thesis. Since the end of the 1970s, the managers of the Saint-Gobain centers have been encouraged to hire PhDs.

Saint-Gobain also has several Chairs in France (X-ESPCI, École des Ponts, INSA Lyon, Nancy Mines). I have myself contributed to the establishment of an international network of academic partners (Saint-Gobain University Network) whose ambition is twofold: to identify the best international teams in order to collaborate with them, and to make use of these partnerships in order to recruit talented students after their thesis on disciplines of interest for Saint-Gobain. I have always enjoyed meeting and interacting with teams from different continents and of different education. Diversity is a great wealth which brings innovation.

What were your motivations for the presidency of the SFP?
I am not a doctor in physics, but I have always been interested in physics and its applications. For nearly forty years, I have interacted with great pleasure with many physicists. Concerning SFP’s presidency, I was encouraged to accept cordial invitation of Michel Spiro by Didier Roux and Jean-Claude Lehmann, who have both joined Saint-Gobain after a career at the CNRS and who are familiar with the complementarity of the two environments.

As for my action at the SFP, I know that I can rely on a friendly and solid team with which I will be able to establish a roadmap. Inspired by the work of my predecessors, I intend to ensure continuity and to capitalize the recognized assets of the Society. Throughout my working path, I think that the links of the SFP with industry could be reinforced (for example by the insertion of young PhD students) and I will focus, in particular, on continuing the actions taken to attract young people, especially young women, towards careers in science (Olympiads, "Mains à la pâte" ...). Finally, my primary concerns are and will be to develop the image and the visibility of the SFP abroad and to attract young members.

Véronique Pierron-Bohnes
CNRS researcher and former President of the “Femmes et Physique” commission at SFP Translated from Reflets de la Physique, n° 52 (February 2017) pp. 38-39.