“After taking my class,students will look at the objects differently"

Véronique Michaud has been teaching materials science at EPFL since 2009.© Alain Herzog 2020 EPFL

Véronique Michaud has been teaching materials science at EPFL since 2009.© Alain Herzog 2020 EPFL

Véronique Michaud, an associate professor in EPFL’s materials science and engineering department since 2017, has been named best teacher for this section.

Michaud – who has been teaching materials science at EPFL's School of Engineering since 2009 – was somewhat amused when she found out she’d won the award. It wasn’t too long ago that she was on the other side of the table, recommending colleagues for the best teacher award as head of the materials science and engineering section. “It’s kind of like I’m getting back what I put in. I invested a lot in my work at the time,” she says.

And she still invests a lot in what she does. Michaud is involved in an impressive number of cross-disciplinary projects. She also invests heavily in her students, who appreciate her teaching methods and the fact that the door to her (cluttered) office is always open. They know they can turn to her for career advice – or even some comforting words after taking her first-year class on just how rare some of the elements essential for today’s manufacturing industry are in the earth’s crust. Michaud’s approach to teaching involves giving students “the tools to learn”, so that they can keep going on their own. “The learning process often includes a fair amount of frustration, questioning and discouragement before students eventually grasp the subject matter. But when they do, it’s very gratifying!” she says. It’s a learning approach she used first of all on herself.

Welcome to America

Michaud’s career started with a culture shock. In 1987, she went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get her PhD, and she saw a teaching style very different from the one she’d been accustomed to in France. Instead of simply solving equations on the chalkboard, professors there spent time explaining the physics behind them. “It was such a different way of teaching that I felt like I was learning how to ride a bike all over again,” she says. She saw how important it is to combine a solid scientific foundation with an understanding of the physical mechanisms at work in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the field. “We have to be aware of what’s in the world around us,” says Michaud.

That may also be where Michaud realized that sometimes teachers have to put on a little “show” to “wake up” students whose attention may have drifted off. “A lot of students think that all you have to do for a class is show up – without really listening – and you’ll somehow magically absorb the topic. Materials science is a subject that anyone can learn, but you have to make an effort. When I see students’ eyes wandering, I know it’s time to change the pace, give a demonstration or even make a little joke. Sometimes I come out of my two-hour classes exhausted!” she says.

An (almost) clear-cut career path

As a child, Michaud never thought she’d become a teacher. Her initial dream, perhaps a little naively, was to raise animals on a farm and make goat-milk cheese. “That was back in the hippie days,” she explains. But once she got a taste of teaching, she soon changed her mind. She enjoyed helping other students in her class and tutoring neighbors’ kids in mathematics. She was often asked to tutor young girls in particular – probably to serve as an example. “I tried to help the girls overcome their own obstacles and show them that given the right methods, they’re just as smart as anyone else.” Michaud points out that she never felt discriminated against in her career. When sexist remarks were made, she nipped them right in the bud.

The beauty of composites

As someone who is curious and has her feet firmly on the ground, Michaud quickly developed an interest in materials, since they’re what make up the world around us. She is fascinated not just by their structural and functional properties, but also by their aesthetic qualities – artists often use composites in their works, for example. Michaud believes that aspect should be taught more in schools: “Objects should be designed not just to work properly, but also – and especially – to be used and adopted by humans. I warn students that after taking my class, they’ll never look at the objects around them in the same way. They’ll immediately start thinking about their composition and microstructure, and how that influences their proprieties.”

The humanitarian aspect also plays an important role for Michaud in selecting which research projects to take part in. She helped design composite materials for the Agilis foot prostheses developed by the ICRC, for example, and is currently working on using recycled plastics in 3D printers to make equipment for disabled people in Colombia. “I feel like I’ve developed something interesting from a scientific standpoint, even though there might be some technical and cost-related challenges. It’s also my humble contribution to a better world,” she says. A better world – and also a better planet. “I’m concerned about the environment and especially the problem of waste. I’m on a task force that’s working with Swiss face-mask manufacturers to develop masks that can be washed and reused and therefore last longer,” says Michaud. She concludes that “there are a lot of benefits to plastics, but they have to be used responsibly and with as little environmental impact as possible.”