Portrait of a French Scientist 5/5: Anne Pommier, Researcher in Planetary Physics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego [fr]

Human curiosity to understand our planet and the universe is ancient and constantly renewed by scientific discoveries. It is this curiosity that drives Anne Pommier, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Research Center at UC San Diego University (UCSD-SIO).

Anne Pommier, Researcher in Planetary Physics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

Her research aims to understand the internal structure and evolution of terrestrial planets and moons (Earth, Mars, Mercury, Moon, Ganymede, Io). She explains: “These planets are called ’terrestrial’ because they are differentiated into different layers: a metallic core, a mantle and a crust”. She points out that although these objects have this internal structure in common, they are very diverse in size, composition, internal structure, magnetic field, etc. Anne Pommier indicates that these disparities suggest varied evolutionary histories. This field of study, which encompasses mineral physics and experimental petrology (study of rocks), was developed in the early 1900s, when research teams began to apply physical science techniques to petrology. This experimental approach involves studying scientific questions by measurements in the laboratory, conducting experiments under pressure and temperature conditions that mimic those of the interior of planets. The aim is to probe the physical and chemical properties, in real time and in situ, of natural and synthetic rocks. The data are then used to make models of the structure of the planets and of their cooling over time. However, these measurements alone are not sufficient to fully understand geological processes, which is why Dr. Pommier is developing collaborations with researchers who have different and complementary expertise, particularly in geophysics, planetary sciences, geodynamics and field petrology.
She is now particularly interested in one topic: the intrinsic magnetic field of these planets and moons, generated in their partially or completely molten metal cores: “Understanding why some of these celestial objects have an intense magnetic field with the presence of a dynamo (such as the Earth, Ganymede), or a weak field (Mercury), or no field at all (Mars, Moon) is a question without a clear answer and that arouses a lot of interest. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the sun’s radiation, and it is therefore necessary for the maintenance of life on Earth. Understanding how such a field can be generated and how it can disappear is fundamental to understand the habitability of a planet”. It is a fascinating research theme that regularly sheds light on areas of understanding of our environment.

From Picasso’s paintings to the study of planetary objects, it’s only a step away

The trigger that lead Anne Pommier to science is one of those stories that we would like to see shared more often. She recounts: “I remember seeing a documentary on the deciphering of Picasso’s paintings in art class in secondary school; it was a trigger and an inexhaustible source of inspiration and questioning, including in science”. After a Baccalaureat in Besançon, followed by a preparatory class at the lycée Masséna in Nice, Anne Pommier continued her studies at the engineering school Polytech’Orléans, while at the same time taking a Master’s degree in research at the University of Orléans. She then knocked on the door of a CNRS laboratory in Orléans for the first time in 2003 “to see if I could come for a few hours a week between classes”. The person who welcomed her there, Dr. M. Pichavant, would become her thesis director three years later and a major model in science for, as would her co-thesis director Dr. Fabrice Gaillard.
She did her thesis at the Institute of Earth Sciences of Orleans (CNRS – University of Orleans) from 2006 to 2009, then began her career in the United States. She continued with a first post-doc at MIT (Cambridge, MA) then a second post-doc at ASU (Tempe, AZ), while at the same time being Visiting Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI – Houston, Texas). In the US, Anne Pommier develops her research but also flourishes in the fields of painting and mosaics: “Science and painting mutually nourish my creativity and are part of my equilibrium”. She then obtained a faculty position at UCSD-SIO in 2014, where she set up her high-pressure experimental research laboratory and developed numerous collaborations in the US (APS, WHOI, ASU) and in Europe (Leeds, Liège, Lille). She is also Faculty Affiliate in the Engineering Department of UCSD Adjunct Professor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, MA). The development of her art has not been neglected, and Anne Pommier had her first exhibition in an art gallery in Pacific Beach, San Diego in the fall of 2019: “It was an important achievement; I am used to sharing my research results in conferences or publications, but sharing my art with an audience was different”. This positive experience could be repeated in San Diego in 2020!
This brilliant and atypical journey raises questions. “I was not predestined, neither for a career as a researcher, nor for expatriation!” she exclaims. I come from a working-class background and I am the first person in my family to obtain an engineering degree and a doctorate”, she says. Science attracted her at an early age, and she was fortunate to grow up in a family where curiosity, knowledge and the joy of reading were greatly respected and encouraged. “My parents allowed their children to pursue education, which they themselves did not have the opportunity to do. They have been a little overwhelmed at times, but I know they are proud”. Moreover, outside the family setting, her thesis supervisors believed in her from the beginning, “their attitude was a huge sign of encouragement”. Anne Pommier has always had that necessary curiosity, which, combined with a good dose of determination, enabled her to achieve her goals. Today, it is with great enthusiasm that she says she is part of the scientific team of a space mission concept recently selected by the NASA (Io – moon of Jupiter – Volcano Observer mission concept)! Indeed, NASA plays a fundamental and leading role in discoveries related to planetary science. It is a real success to be part of these large-scale missions.
Moreover, the research system in the United States opens possibilities for researchers to set up their laboratory from scratch, and Anne Pommier points out that this would not have been possible in France. It is indeed a difference between the two systems that partly decided the researcher: “I wanted this challenge, and in general, the way research is conducted in the United States suits me well, both in its approach, its way of thinking and the way it is carried out. Young researchers are given a chance, and I’ve received incredible support from the NSF in everything I’ve done. Having said that, I really enjoy my interactions with French and European researchers and there are excellent benefits in both systems”. She pointed out that exchanges with scientists from other academic systems are essential – particularly for intellectual stimulation. In this respect, she is currently developing a collaboration with the University of Lille, where she had the opportunity last year to teach as Visiting Professor.

“I think that it will be a great step when we will stop reminding women scientists that they are women in everything they do”

The tone is set and the thinking is sound. According to Anne Pommier, the question of being a woman in science should not arise. However, she acknowledges that her research universe is far from achieving parity and that “it’s far from simple,” even at the University of California, where the issue of diversity in science is taken very seriously. “It’s a daily struggle”, she says. Anne Pommier’s role models are therefore overwhelmingly male, which is not a problem for her because “it’s their actions that interest and inspire her, not their gender! ». This is bound to change because, at her level, she understands the need for some people to have role models who resemble them to build themselves: “When I teach my course at UCSD, I highlight the contributions made by women scientists, as they are often ignored in the literature… This allows me to illustrate the fact that a career in science, and in planetology in particular, is accessible to all”. According to her, it is important to cultivate a thirst for learning, to have self-confidence and to give oneself the means to fulfil one’s dreams “because it is possible, whether one has the ’expected’ profile or social background or not”. She punctuates: “Research is an exceptional profession…”.

More about Anne Pommier:
Anne Pommier’s webpge: https://igppweb.ucsd.edu/ anpommier/Home.html

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