As chemistry is in the spotlight this year, we give you feedback on the Masters’ degrees offered by Université Paris- Saclay. The variety of fields and areas of expertise disproves common misconceptions entertained by the general public.
On 4 October 2018, under the auspices of the Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, the year of school chemistry was launched at the university. On this occasion, France will host the 51st International Chemistry Olympiad from 21 to 30 July 2019 in Paris, as well as many other events intended to familiarise young people with the subject. Two hashtags were also put forward: #yearofchemistry and #thankstochemistry.
Chemistry: a great unknown for the public
That decision was not taken lightly. Chemistry still incites distrust, perhaps, partly, “because among the general public, there is virtually no culture of chemistry. There is still an idea that chemistry isn’t ‘natural’, so it’s bad”, stated Philippe Minard, head of the second-year Master’s in biomolecular engineering and chemistry and researcher at the Institute for integrative cell biology (I2BC – CEA/CNRS/ Université Paris-Sud). “All chemistry teachers combat the image whereby ‘chemical products’ are a synonym for ‘toxic products’,” said Laurent Salmon, head of the second-year Master’s in chemical pollution and environmental management and researcher at the Orsay Institute of molecular chemistry and materials (ICMMO – CNRS/Université Paris-Sud). Delphine Joseph, head of the second-year Master’s in pharmaceutical chemistry and researcher at the Biomolecules: design, isolation and synthesis laboratory (BioCIS – CNRS/ Université Paris-Sud), concurred: “Chemistry is often decried because of its association with the terms ‘pollution’ and ‘toxicity’. However, that does not allow for the crucial role it plays in our daily lives and well-being. Chemistry is what makes it possible to produce contact lenses and develop new medications!”
Chemistry in all its states
While there is still much to be done in raising the awareness of the general public, Philippe Minard noted that for Master’s students, “that’s practically no longer an issue. Those questions are tackled during the bachelor’s degree.” At Université Paris-Saclay, students quickly see the varied fields that involve chemistry. Talal Mallah, also a researcher at ICMMO and head of the second-year Master’s in inorganic chemistry: molecules, surfaces and nanoobjects, explained that for his Master’s, “materials with a molecular basis and nano-objects” were studied, “mainly through their physical and chemical properties”. Delphine Joseph explained that for the second-year Master’s in pharmaceutical chemistry, “our aim is to train students in strategies for discovering and developing medicines that are synthetic or of natural origin. Once you have identified one of the biological targets involved in a disease, the goal is to develop the drug capable of acting upon the target and treating the illness.” As for the second-year Master’s in biomolecular engineering and chemistry, which serves as an interface between chemistry and biology, Philippe Minard stated that “the aim is to study the molecular mechanisms in living beings.” He added, “In cells, you find macromolecules that are unbelievably sophisticated! Consequently, you need to know not only how to produce them, but also how to determine their form and their potential evolutions. Our students actually have to become ‘mechanics’ for living macromolecules.” Regarding the second-year Master’s in chemical pollution and environmental management, the aim is to train managers capable of diagnosing and managing soil, water and air pollution, or of working in the waste sector.
Chemistry actually benefits the environment. For Delphine Joseph, that is not a new development. “This dimension has been considered for many years. In chemistry, we use derivatives stemming from fossil matter. As it is finite, one of the goals of chemistry is to transform renewable resources, produced by nature, as a substitute.” In the second-year Master’s she heads, one course unit is thus dedicated to “Emerging techniques and processes in eco-compatible chemistry”. Students who take the course are made aware of the emerging methods reducing the impact of their activity on nature. They can reduce their use of solvents and learn methods that require less energy. “We’ve had very positive feedback,” she said. “Students are made aware of things they had not considered before.” As for the second-year Master’s managed by Laurent Salmon, environmental concerns are evidently at the heart of the course… and ensuing employment. “90% of our students go on to work in the environmental sector,” he said.
Significant insertion rates
After a second-year Master’s degree in chemistry, students do not find themselves at a loss. Following the second-year Master’s in chemical pollution and environmental management, which aims to train managers, graduates leave to seek employment in companies. The students who graduated in 2018 all found employment “within four months after they had earned their diploma,” said a jubilant Laurent Salmon. Over ten years, 90% of students found a job in the year following their graduation. For her part, Delphine Joseph sees most of her graduates turn towards research. “However, among our Master’s students who also have a pharmacy degree, some turn to industry and easily find work,” she said.
Philippe Minard also noted a “strong interest in research, perhaps kindled by the exceptionally rich academic setting”. He further specified that “Two thirds of students wish to complete a PhD and successfully pass the competitive exams to the requisite doctoral schools”. As for the remaining third, the degree’s mix of chemistry and biology enables them to display a dual competence, for instance, in industrial property. Talal Mallah’s students, too, overwhelmingly choose research. Moreover, the ‘nano’ dimension appeals to some start-ups that recruit students once they have completed their PhDs. Can the image of chemistry be changed? “It’s also up to chemists to have a care and show that their discipline is very different to what people may think,” said Laurent Salmon. At Université Paris-Saclay, that momentum is already under way.
The original version of this article was published in L'Edition #10.