“I told my parents that I’d found some prehistoric animals”

Nouria Hernandez

59-year old Nouria Hernandez took on the post of Rector of UNIL in early August. Over the next five years, she wants to move towards excellence. (F. Imhof © UNIL)

David Trotta / L’Uniscope
A woman, a researcher, a wife, a mother and Rector of UNIL since August: Nouria Hernandez has many strings to her bow. We got the chance to meet her.

We have an appointment with Nouria Hernandez, a few days before she moves into her new office to don her mantle as Rector of the University of Lausanne. Once I reach the top, the door is open. She greets us with a big smile and an outstretched hand that welcomes discussion: “Hello, pleased to meet you, I’m Nouria Hernandez”.

On Thursday, 25 June 2015, the university council appointed the biologist to succeed Dominique Arlettaz. The Council of State of Vaud approved this decision two months later. “First of all, I was surprised when I was elected,” she says. “The process was short. In a few months, I went from a state of mind where, having left the management of the UNIL Center for Integrative Genomics, I would take the opportunity to refocus on research and teaching, to where I would ultimately stop managing a laboratory”.

Today, however, she does not regret her decision, even if it was far from easy. “From the start, I told myself that if I applied to become rector, I would not do it half-heartedly. I love research, the process of solving a puzzle from a few available items, but with lots of missing pieces. The decision to stop after finishing the current projects was very difficult, but I took it”.

Mother Nature

After all – let’s not forget – Hernandez, 59, is first and foremost a biologist. Her love of nature has been with her since early childhood, when she would go hiking at weekends with her parents in the Bernese Oberland or animals would surround her at the family home in Geneva. “I even kept bats. I found some on the ground when I was around six years old. I brought them home and told my parents that I’d found some prehistoric animals,” she says. “This was because I had a children’s encyclopaedia with a winged reptile drawing, possibly a pterosaur”.

So why biology? “Tell me what’s more exciting than the study of life,” she says, laughing. “I did my studies at the University of Geneva thinking that I would move towards ecology. I was already interested in environmental protection at that time”. While she abandoned this project, firstly discouraged by the difficulty of finding work in this sector and secondly driven by a passion for molecular biology born during her studies, sustainability never left her mind. This issue already has a place at UNIL, and the rector intends to develop it further. “This is a broad subject which includes for example reflection that antibiotics are beginning to lose their effectiveness, or that it is not enough to have better light bulbs, or even that they should be used less. Which is not the case so far. Sustainability also involves preserving the biodiversity of organisms in general. Biodiversity can be seen as an enormous capital of which we have only scratched the surface, and which we’d never recover were we to lose it”.

For Hernandez, such issues involve a change in mentality. New models which factor in economic, political and philosophical considerations can take root in the Dorigny campus for a start. “If you think about it, the University is a fantastic place to think through this issue, as all interested researchers can incorporate it into their field. But also in teaching, so that UNIL graduates are aware of the challenges of sustainability. The campus forms just a tiny part of all establishments in Switzerland. But we can conduct small-scale experiments here which, if they work extremely well, can serve as models”.

A globetrotter

There’s no stopping Hernandez once she starts on this topic. She recalls examples which she built up during her trips to Barcelona when the family would return to her father’s estate. Or more recently in Cuba, with images of Havana smoky from a power plant generating electricity with fuel oil. “In a country where the sun shines all year round!” she protests.

Hernandez’s travels around the world have taught her a thing or two about cultural differences. She left Switzerland soon after turning 30, starting with Germany where she spent time studying for a PhD. Then on to America. Specifically Yale University for a postdoctoral fellowship. This “stay” would ultimately last for over twenty years.

The future rector made some lasting memories during this time. “America is a country which is quite different from ours, in the sense that the cult of individuality is much greater” Any positive sides? The fact that the school system encourages children from a young age not to set themselves limits. This observation directly affects the biologist, since her two children, now 24 and 22 years old, were born there. “On the other hand, there is little solidarity for the community as such. It’s a bit every man for himself. For those who don’t make it, tough luck”.

And thinking again about sustainability, Hernandez cannot but mention the “extreme and scandalous waste of resources”. This is one of the shocking realities of her life across the pond.

Supporting excellence

A woman of convictions, she likes to play fair. Is she a rector who rules with a firm hand? “What I can say to that is that the world of research is very tough, extremely competitive. You have to talk to colleagues who won’t pass by the chance to poke fun at you if you say something stupid. My career has prepared me to survive in this world where people are frank and say what they think”.

But what will be the Nouria Hernandez brand for the next five years and the future of the University of Lausanne? “I’m told that you shouldn’t use the term ‘excellence,’” she says without a moment’s hesitation. “Its connotation of competitiveness can frighten some people”. This is a path which she still wishes to take. “I’m talking about the university, its departments and research. I think it should be excellent, just like the teaching, which moreover depends on the quality of research. And students must have the best possible environment for success. That’s excellence, to me”.

For she has also studied in prestigious hautes écoles. And she doesn’t necessarily have only fond memories of her course, especially in terms of the relationship between lecturers and students. “Some gave incomprehensible classes in such a way as to make the subject seem difficult. The lecturers who we can’t understand, or who speak so fast that they prevent us from taking notes, are bad lecturers”.

So is this a way of reassure newcomers to academic life? “I’d like to foster a culture where classes are taught in a clear and understandable way. Even for the toughest subjects. Content can be complex. But may it not be for the wrong reasons”. Excellence for the future rector is all of these things at once. Hernandez believes that few people will be opposed to this vision.

Biography in brief

  • Born in 1957 in Chêne-Bougeries, in the Canton of Geneva
  • Obtained school leaving certificate at Collège Calvin in 1976
  • Graduated in Biology in 1980 at the University of Geneva
  • Gained a PhD in Molecular Biology in 1983 in Germany, Heidelberg University
  • Postdoctoral researcher until 1986 at Yale University, USA
  • Researcher then professor at the Watson School of Biological Sciences, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1987 – 2005
  • Director of the Center for Integrative Genomics, University of Lausanne, 2005 – 2014
  • Rector of UNIL since August 2016
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