“Being 18 in today's world makes me hopeful”

And 20 years from now? “I hope to have created something of my own". © Alain Herzog/ EPFL

And 20 years from now? “I hope to have created something of my own". © Alain Herzog/ EPFL

Natacha Romanens is in the third year of her apprenticeship to become a physics laboratory assistant at EPFL’s Laboratory of Soil Mechanics (LMS).

Natacha’s desk sits in a giant workshop in the basement of EPFL’s Civil Engineering building, among complex machinery and tools that the average person wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to use. Some are true instruments of torture – for soil, that is. “We analyze soil under different conditions to see how it reacts,” says Natacha. She has not once regretted her career choice.

“I’ve always had a lot of different interests, and no single path ever emerged,” she says. But she did know one thing for sure – she didn’t want to go on to senior high school. “In school, I felt like the practical aspect was missing. So I explored other options, and I came upon physics lab assistant. I only applied to one position, here at EPFL, and I was accepted. I enjoyed it right off the bat, and it has lived up to all my expectations!”

Crushed, drowned and frozen

The LMS’s “clients” drop off their soil at the lab. We’re not talking about a dump truck unloading a pile of dirt, teeming with worms and speckled with pebbles. Instead, samples of grayish powder, oily clay and dense rock arrive in 10- to 20-kilogram bags. Researchers also receive soil cores, which are cylindrical samples that end up getting sliced and diced for testing purposes.

“There are very strict soil characterization protocols,” says Natacha. Some trials are designed to help characterize the soil, while others are meant to test it. She works with PhD students in handling – or rather manhandling – their research material, crushing them under tons of weight, drowning them in water or exposing them to temperatures far below freezing. The laboratory’s state-of-the-art technology attracts clients from outside the university, too. Engineering firms are often interested in learning about the ground on which their future building, railroad or bridge will stand.

The same physics fundamentals, different specializations

“There are specific physics-based methods and theories behind each test, so my work is quite varied. I never do the same thing twice in a row,” she says. “Every soil sample is different, too, and you have to know how to work with each one. Some tests take an hour and a half of non-stop work, while others take four days but don’t require any intervention during that time – like when we freeze and defrost soil multiple times, for example.”

In addition to the three days a week she spends at the LMS with her only colleague and supervisor, Patrick, Natacha also takes classes in Lausanne. Along with her seven classmates, who include two other women, she has discovered just how diverse her field is. “No two people do the same thing,” she says. “One makes crystals, another one works on electronics and someone else inspects soldered joints. Our classes complement the work we do for our company or lab nicely, so we all end up with the same physics fundamentals, plus a specialization.”

A reason to get out of bed in the morning

Entering the workforce at just 16 years old taught Natacha how to persevere in the face of adversity. “In school, if you fail one subject, you can make it up in the others,” she says. “But in the lab, you have to stick with a test until it works.” Unlike some of her peers who went on to senior high school for lack of a better idea, Natacha has also discovered what it means to genuinely want to be somewhere – in the lab. Even if it means an early wakeup call when commuting from her home in the Fribourg countryside.

What’s it like being an 18-year-old right now? “I like it. I feel like I’m part of the generation that’s going to change things. Being 18 in today’s world makes me hopeful. I support the fights for the environment and for equality, and being 18 right now means I’m able to take part in them.” She also appreciates the socially and politically minded atmosphere she’s found at EPFL.

In just over a year’s time, Natacha will finish her training program, earning her a federal certificate of competence (CFC) and a broader vocational degree. The next step she’d like to take is the military service. “I’ve always wanted to serve in the military. I believe it’s a question of equality, it shouldn’t just be a guy thing. It will also give me the opportunity to push my limits, to get away, and to hike in the mountains if I join the infantry.” And then what? “A lot of things really interest me.” And 20 years from now? “I hope to have created something of my own. I’m not sure yet what that means – writing a book? starting a company? – but I’d like to be able to say that with my skills, my strengths and my flaws, I was able to accomplish something that will benefit future generations.”