Tips for Making The Analytical Scientist’s Prized PowerList
The Analytical Scientist magazine published its PowerList 2016 of the most influential women in the analytical sciences in October. Named to the list was Dr. Isabelle Francois, Business Development Manager for the UPC²/SFC & Strategic Separation Technologies business at Waters. It’s actually her second time on the list – she was on the publication’s Top 40 Under 40 list in 2014.
After getting her Ph.D. in Chemistry in 2008 under Pat Sandra at the University of Ghent in Belgium, Isabelle worked for ExxonMobil as a Chromatography Supervisor before joining Waters in 2011. Travel is a part of her job; this year alone, she’s made over 25 trips across Europe and has plans to visit Russia, Dubai, and India soon. Fluent in three languages – French, Dutch, and English, she is also conversant in two more – Spanish and German.
Q. What was your reaction to being named to the PowerList?
A. It’s a bit of a popularity contest, for sure, but, nevertheless I’m quite happy to see that people have actually taken the time to nominate me. It’s a great list with quite a lot of ladies for whom I have great respect. And obviously I’m also proud to be part of it. It’s also quite nice to see representation from industry as well as academia.
Q. Do you find more women seeking careers in analytical chemistry than when you were in school?
A. Definitely yes. I see more women entering the profession than I saw 10 or 15 years ago. I remember giving training courses for Pfizer while I was getting my Ph.D. and I was almost always one of the only females whereas, today, that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
Q. What or who turned you on to a career in science?
A. When I was in high school I excelled more in languages than in science or in mathematics, although I was not too bad in these subjects either. After finishing high school I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I thought about archeology or linguistics but I liked chemistry quite a lot and I like working with my hands. So I decided to go for my industrial engineering degree and I learned a lot about chemistry, but also mechanics, electronics, and informatics.
I came to love chromatography when I was doing my master’s thesis in the last year of the industrial engineering degree program. For a time I worked with a Waters LC-MS instrument at an environmental lab in Belgium and really liked it. For my thesis, I developed a method for separating polar pesticides, which they used until the lab did not exist anymore. Everyone assigned to work with that instrument had to read my thesis because it was a good introduction. As much as anything else, that made me realize that I wanted to work in industry rather than teach. I thoroughly enjoy what I do every single day, which is important because I don’t have a lot of leisure time.
My Ph.D. advisor, Pat Sandra, has also been a huge inspiration, and his supervision and mentoring have turned me into the analytical scientist I am today.
Q. What is a typical day like for you?
A. Every day is different and that’s what I like. I give presentations for Waters at technology events or attend conferences. I visit customers and work with the sales team very closely. When you work with niche products like SFC and two-dimensional LC, it’s easier to bring value to a conversation with a customer, which is why my colleagues are typically quite happy to see me.
I also like finding key applications that can make a difference for the Waters business. Translating the success of particular customers into success for others is the real business development aspect of what I do. You can multiply one order in one account into many orders in other accounts. That’s quite exciting. Occasionally, I also still work in the lab together with my customers/collaborators for “specialty” configurations of our instrumentation. That is something I enjoy doing, although I would not want to be in the lab 24/7 anymore.
Q. How does your background in chemistry work to your advantage?
A. It’s quite important because once the customer realizes that you understand what you’re talking about, it makes you a lot more credible, and you understand their challenges a lot better. Very often I hear that both customers as well as colleagues appreciate the fact that they have learned something new after my visit, certainly as I am responsible for “niche” products. That would be more difficult without that technical background.
Q. What personality traits or skills does it take to do what you do?
A. My technical background and having the experience in the lab definitely helps. Moreover, I am also dedicated to make my customers successful. So giving up is not an option! I think it’s extremely important to find your passion and aspirations and to work hard without giving up. Keeping an open mind to new types of opportunities is important to me. In terms of working with people, I always try to respect people and cultures, and treat them the way I would like to be treated.
Q. If you had the chance to have dinner with someone living or not, who would that be and why?
A. I would love to have dinner with someone like Marie Curie. She won Nobel Prizes and was one of the first females to teach classes at universities. So definitely she would be one of the top of my list. I could name a couple of artists as well. Also I like talking to people who are not active in chromatography or science. I know some people in the music and art industry who tend to be led more by emotions than by the mind. I am more analytically-minded which is why I find my conversations with them to be very enriching.