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Félicie Albert

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Félicie Albert. Félicie is currently a staff scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), USA, in the National Ignition Facility and Photon Science directorate and the Joint High Energy Density Sciences (JHEDS) organization. She is also the deputy director for LLNL’s center for High Energy Density Science.

Félicie is the recipient of a 2019 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Her areas of expertise include the generation and applications of novel sources of electrons, X-rays and gamma-rays through laser-plasma interaction, laser-wakefield acceleration, and Compton scattering. She has conducted many experiments using high-intensity lasers.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

As far as I can remember, I’ve always been attracted by science. When I was a little kid, I was very curious about everything. That’s something I got from my dad; he was very much like that as well, and always encouraged me to pursue science.

I remember my parents had a big astronomy book at home, and I liked to look at the pictures of galaxies and planets and to understand how they worked. So very early on I thought that I would be either an astrophysicist or an astronaut. I read a lot of astronomy books and spent long nights with my telescope as a child and teenager.

What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?

Besides the fact that I feel that I work on unique problems, I never get bored, and I work with a lot of smart and talented people. I don’t have a “typical day at work,” because it is never the same. Some days I’ll be in the lab tweaking optics and lasers, and other days I’ll be at my desk writing papers and proposals, or in meetings, or mentoring students, giving a tour of the National Ignition Facility at LLNL to high school students, traveling somewhere around the world or giving a talk to a very big audience. Along the way I have met very interesting people, mentors, colleagues and peers. My job has also given me the opportunity to live in a different country than the one I grew up in! (I grew up in France).

Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?

Oh yes, more than once. I have had people tell me that maybe I was not made for that type of work (being a scientist). Well, I am glad I did not listen.

Falling down is not what matters, it’s getting back up. Perseverance is key in a scientific career. At the end of the day, if you are passionate about what you are doing, you will succeed. I’ve had plenty of setbacks: jobs I applied to and did not get, proposals and papers that got rejected big time, and experiments that did not work at all. But I kept trying. If you keep trying, there is no reason it won’t pay off. I know it’s easy to say in hindsight, but trust me on this one! If I show you some of the reviewers’ comments I got on one of my first proposals, you will believe me!

What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?

Professional societies are a great way to stay engaged. I am a member of both OSA and APS, and it gives me access to a lot of resources, online and otherwise. Going to conferences is great for young professionals because this is how you meet new people. Most of the time you meet people in special networking events held at conferences after the technical sessions are over.

And now that I am more advanced in my career, I try to serve on various committees. For example, I am a member of the APS–Division of Plasma Physics executive committee; I am a member of the International Committee on Ultra Intense Lasers (ICUIL); and I have been on several conference program committees. Recently, at OSA headquarters in Washington DC, USA, I helped organize the “Brightest Light Initiative Workshop,” a workshop to help restore the United States’ leadership in high-intensity-laser science.

What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?

Get out there. We all have different personalities and ways of doing things, but reaching out to people is so important. Conferences and events are one way to do it, but if you don’t have the opportunity to do that just yet, there is always something nearby at your home institution—a postdoc association, a women-in-sciences group, etc.  Don’t be shy, there will always be someone there to help you. Whenever I did not feel like doing things by myself, I have found a lot of people who have helped me and introduced me to other people.

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student or early in your career?

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, it’s okay to fail sometimes. We are all human beings, and it’s okay to acknowledge that we all have weaknesses and that sometimes it can be hard.”

I tend to be fairly affected when I fail at something, and as a student and a young scientist, I gave it more importance than I should have. So, if a paper or a proposal is rejected, if you did not get that job that you were aiming for, that’s okay. Brush it off and try again. I also wish I’d understood earlier that it’s okay to say no from time to time, even though I still have a hard time to do that.

What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

I owe a lot to my mentors. More than giving me technical advice, they have also thought me skills that you don’t learn in the classroom. They launched me into the professional world. For example, one of my most influential mentors got me to be a working group leader at a workshop in our scientific field, and I’ve honed a lot of skills doing this, while gaining a lot of visibility.

Now I try to be an advocate and a champion for the people I mentor. Being a mentor is great; most of the time, the students and postdocs I work with come up with ideas that I would not have thought of. They keep me engaged. I also love doing outreach through various events or media channels to engage young children, especially girls, in STEM careers. It is always very inspiring.

What are daily habits that help you to be successful?

Sport and work–life balance! I know that does not sound like work, but having a good work–life balance with my family, my husband and my friends is what helps me be a better scientist. I know I will be more productive at work when I have variety and balance in my life.

Of course, sometimes the demands of the job do not always make it easy, but I make it a priority to do an outdoor activity every day. That’s how I was raised. During the week, I either bike, swim or run, and on the weekends or holidays, I go skiing, surfing, hiking or scuba diving. This is my outlet. This can seem to be very time consuming, but over the course of my career, I learned to plan my days around sport, and it helps me to be more productive.

This morning, for example, I got up 45 minutes earlier to go running before catching a flight for a meeting in Washington, D.C., and I got some good work done on the plane! It does help that I live in California of course. But I was also doing it as a grad student in France.

How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?

Leadership roles are extremely important in career development, and they don’t have to be formal at the beginning; this will come later. For example, you can volunteer to run a technical working group at your own institution, or help your local postdoc association. And don’t be afraid to seek opportunities, in your institution or through your broader community—I have done that many times.

What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?

Remember that the person who is interviewing you also had his/her own first job interview once. No matter what happens, it will be okay. Any job interview is a new experience, and no matter the outcome, you’ll learn something from it that will help you later. So, take a deep breath, be confident in your skills and you’ve got this!

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

The funny thing is that what I want in my career constantly changes. Reflecting back on the past 10 years, I have spent a lot of time proving myself and spending long days in the lab, doing data analysis and writing papers and proposals. But now, there is nothing that makes me happier than seeing a student or a postdoc that I mentor succeed. I look forward to helping younger scientists thrive like my mentors helped me to thrive.

If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?

Ah, that’s a very vast question!! As I said at the beginning, as a kid I wanted to be either an astronaut or an astrophysicist, but there are two other careers that I know I would have loved:

An orthopedic surgeon: As a kid I had to have surgeries to repair my legs, and without them I would not be walking properly today, nor would I be doing so much sport. My life would have been totally different. So I thought that if I could have the same impact on people as my surgeon had on me—well, this would be awesome. It is not until the last semester of high school that I decided to finally stick to physics. I have no regrets, but sometimes I wonder “what if?”

An athlete: I would have loved to compete in the Olympics. I come from a family of very athletic people where we all enjoy playing and watching sports. My dad was a physical education teacher who taught me many sports, and my mum was a dance teacher. I am also very competitive in general—sometimes that is good, and sometimes not so much! I probably would have picked downhill skiing, because I did some competitions when I was younger, and I really liked it. But at the end of the day, I am very happy as a scientist, and I kept skiing as one of my favorite hobbies.