PORTRAIT : Audrey Desgrange, de la physique du sable à la biologie du développement

Audrey Desgrange obtained this year the position of Chargée de recherche de classe normale (CRCN) at Inserm and has been officially assigned to the Institut Imagine, in the heart morphogenesis laboratory where she has already been working since 2015. Discover in this portrait her original career path, from her scientific mission in Mauritania to her decisive meeting with Claudie Haigneré.

Published on 03.11.2022

Imagine Institute

A few grains of sand can change a life. In Audrey Desgrange's case, these grains were enough to plant a seed in her mind. To become a researcher? Why not! "In high school, in Les Sables d'Olonne, I was part of a scientific workshop that aimed to develop experiments on the physical properties of sand, We participated in the European event Exposcience and in the Fête de la science [a french national public event to celebrate science]. That's where I met a researcher for the first time'", she recalls. The latter was a specialist in the advance of dunes at the University of Rennes. This meeting with the scientific world will be a trigger and will go far beyond this event since Audrey and her friends will be invited to participate in a scientific mission in Mauritania. The aim was to study the influence of different plants on the dynamics of dune movement. "It was an incredible experience. I remember thinking that the job of a researcher was really concrete. That these people were not only asking questions, but also helping people." That's how Audrey chose to pursue a career in science.

Audrey Desgrange

A decisive meeting with Claudie Haigneré 

Another meeting will dispel her last doubts. On the occasion of the Fête de la science, at the high school this time, she was invited to exhibit at the ministry. Claudie Haigneré, ex-spationaut and then Minister for Research and New Technologies, came to see her at her stand. "She asked me what I wanted to do later. And when I talked to her about being a researcher, she replied: 'If that's what you want to do, there's no reason why you can't do it. From her mouth, it sounded very simple and obvious," Audrey Desgrange remembers very clearly. If there was one last mental barrier left, it had just been broken! Audrey put aside the physics of sand to turn to biology.

Her desire: to heal, but above all to understand. With her baccalaureate in hand, she joined a biology university in the Vendée, at the Catholic Institute of Higher Studies. The environment was very stimulating: small classes, a lot of practical work, an ecosystem where public and private students mix. During the summer, between her L2 and L3, she participated in iGEM, a team competition in synthetic biology. The project: to create a bacterial clock that changes color according to the time of day. This experiment took her to the United States, to MIT, where she participated in her first conference. "Then, at the end of her degree, my cell biology professor pushed me to continue my studies in Paris."

What fascinates me is how we go from one undifferentiated cell to billions of specific cells, which organize themselves into organs with such varied forms and functions  

Audrey Desgrange , Chargée de recherche Inserm

She then joined the Pierre and Marie Curie University where the program was more advanced and the level very high. But her tenacity and passion made her catch up. Her experience and her facility with manipulatives were noticed by her teachers, who offered her a master's internship in their developmental biology laboratory, in a research unit headed by the biologist Catherine Jessus. Audrey went on to do a M2 in developmental biology and continued her thesis in Silvia Cereghini's laboratory, on renal morphogenesis. She discovered that a genetic mutation causes severe malformations of the renal tubules.

From kidney to heart

At the end of her third year of thesis, she moved to a laboratory located in Lapland, at the University of Oulu, specialized in real-time 3D cellular imaging. With a biophysicist colleague, she managed to capture the dynamics of kidney cells in culture. "It looks a bit like a budding tree," she describes. Back in Paris, she defended her thesis and joined the team of Sigolène Meilhac, head of the heart morphogenesis laboratory at Institut Imagine. "What she was doing around the modeling of heart development interested me a lot and I saw many similarities between the development of the kidney and the heart which, in both cases, is organized around a tube that deforms, curves," she explains.

In 2015, she thus joined the laboratory for a Post-doc. "What fascinates me about developmental biology is how we go from an undifferentiated cell to billions of specific cells, which organize themselves into organs with such varied forms and functions, with incredible robustness. As far as the heart is concerned, it is a particularly fascinating organ in that it is the first organ to form during embryonic life," she explains.

L'Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science Fellowship

In 2018, Audrey was one of 30 young French women selected for the L'Oréal-Unesco For Women In Science (FWIS) Fellowship. "It was a very beautiful experience," she recalls. I met exceptional women who shared the same vision of life and science. During a one-week training session organized as part of this fellowship, she forged strong ties with these women researchers with very diverse specialties: astrophysics, mathematics, physics, biology, etc. During this training, they shared their experiences of the "imposter syndrome" that often affects women scientists, and they also exchanged ideas on how to deal with sexist remarks, etc. "Today we still have a very strong bond and continue to see each other regularly. It's a close-knit, caring group that helps and supports each other. This was particularly the case when I was preparing for the competitive exams for research fellowships."

Science belongs to everyone and I believe that one of our missions is to help the public to grasp it.  

Audrey Desgrange , Chargée de recherche Inserm

Successful completion of the research fellow competition

During the confinement, Audrey is plagued by doubt after several unsuccessful attempts. Sigolène Meilhac, her colleagues from Imagine, the Pasteur Institute and Jussieu as well as the FWIS network boost her. She took advantage of the energy she received to re-mobilize herself and to repeat, repeat and repeat again to maximize her chances during auditions at Pasteur and Inserm. This is how she was selected in 2022 by both Pasteur and Inserm. She finally opted for the position of Inserm research fellow. This success will allow her to consider the next steps in her career with serenity. First step : to obtain the Habilitation to direct research (HDR) in order to supervise new thesis students in the laboratory, to proceed in her own name to the search for funding for the continuation of her research, and to continue her scientific quest.

At the same time, the researcher remains very involved in the transmission of science and the awakening of young people to scientific careers, especially young girls. She is a member of the scientific committee of the Musée du sable in Sables d'Olonne. In 2019, she is designated by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research as the Pays de Loire ambassador for the Fête de la Science, a way for her to come full circle. At the Imagine Institute, she is also very involved, especially during open houses. "Science belongs to everyone and I believe that one of our missions is to help the public to understand it," she concludes.