“Teaching helps me communicate more effectively about this field”

Clémence Corminboeuf teaches Bachelor students basic quantum chemistry concepts. © Alain Herzog 2019 EPFL

Clémence Corminboeuf teaches Bachelor students basic quantum chemistry concepts. © Alain Herzog 2019 EPFL

Professor Clémence Corminboeuf is heavily involved in science outreach, especially among women. She has been named best teacher in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering section.

As far back as she can remember, Clémence Corminboeuf has enjoyed the mental challenge of mathematics and physics. “I became interested in science at an early age,” she says. “The fact that my father’s an engineer may have had something to do with it. But my parents never pushed me in a particular direction.” With her unfailingly supportive family behind her, she soon settled on the idea of a career in research. The only hard decision was choosing between physics and chemistry. In the end, she opted to pursue quantum chemistry, a sort of happy medium.

Corminboeuf, now the head of EPFL’s Laboratory for Computational Molecular Design (LCMD), has this year been named best teacher in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering section for her ability to teach this complex subject to students, and for the work she does to promote careers in science. “I’m surprised because students don’t particularly like my class,” she says with a wry smile. “They find it too hard.” As part of the advanced general chemistry I class, she teaches Bachelor students basic quantum chemistry concepts. But Corminboeuf is keen not to traumatize students in their first semester, so she tries to pitch the content at the right level and introduce a healthy mix of theory and practice. “Whenever we work on something particularly abstract, I ask my students to write a half-page summary of what they’ve learned to make sure they’ve grasped the concepts. They get better at it over time.”

Putting theory into practice

In the spring semester, Corminboeuf also teaches computational methods in organic chemistry to Master-level students. “These methods can be used to model chemical reactions and solve problems in chemistry using computer models,” she explains. “Machine learning, for instance, has opened up a whole new world of possibilities, enabling researchers to solve problems that have long been elusive.” Corminboeuf also gives final-year Bachelor students a rare opportunity to put theory into practice by working on a computational chemistry research project in pairs at her lab. “I love talking to the students and seeing how they think,” she adds. “Teaching helps me communicate more effectively about this field”.

Corminboeuf has been working on computational chemistry since devoting her Master’s thesis to theoretical chemistry. She completed her PhD at both the University of Geneva and TU Dresden, where she further cemented her interest in this field. She’s currently exploring how quantum chemistry methods can help develop more efficient catalysts for turning CO2 into everyday products. She’s also working on organic semiconductors that could one day be incorporated into the next generation of solar cells.

Championing women in science

As a woman, Corminboeuf is still something of a rarity in her field. At EPFL, there are only three female chemistry professors, two of whom hold tenure-track positions. “Discrimination has never been an issue for me,” she says. “I’ve learned from men, and I’ve always had their support. But as I’ve risen up the ranks, I’ve become aware that it’s increasingly an old men’s club.” She’s working hard to change that – not least by advocating for more women to choose careers in science. In addition to speaking at schools, running workshops and organizing a summer camp for high-school students, she also coaches and mentors early-career female researchers. “In grade school, girls are just as interested in science as boys,” she explains. “The gap widens as children get older. If we’re going to alter that mindset, we have to coach men as well as women.”

Corminboeuf has two daughters of her own, aged 5 and 10. Her American husband, whom she met in the United States during her postdoc, moved back to Switzerland with her. She says she’s lucky to have married such a supportive man. “I was the one who wasn’t keen on leaving the US,” she says with a laugh. “I thought he’d struggle to adapt to life in Switzerland.” She joined EPFL as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2007. She and her husband have to juggle their family commitments and their jobs. They support each other and share childcare duties. “It only works because we’re a team,” she explains. “Here in Switzerland, it’s still hard for women to combine motherhood and a career.” But, she says, things are starting to change for the better and she hopes to see more women achieving recognition in science in the future.

Author: Laureline Duvillard