Aurelie Coulon

Serving Science, Without the Lab

Text by Nathalie Schmidlin

Each New Year brings resolutions, and swissnex is no exception. In January of 2012, the organization resolved to dedicate even more resources to one of its core disciplines—science—by welcoming Aurélie Coulon as Head of Life Sciences.

Fresh from completing her Ph.D. at the University Hospital of Lausanne, in Switzerland, Coulon comes to the Bay Area full of ideas for spreading the science word.

“It’s a lot to deal with,” she says. “Change the country, change the language… it’s an adjustment!” But she sees plenty of benefits ahead. “A space like swissnex which brings together specialists from different fields also plays a great role in the development of new, challenging ideas.”

Coulon, who is French, received her master’s degree studying the biology of cancers at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris before moving to Switzerland for her doctoral work. She specialized in Neuroblastoma, a pediatric cancer, and spent four years in a research lab characterizing the sub-population of cancer stem cells present within tumors. But that’s not all she focused on: Coulon also led parallel projects along with her studies. She wrote science articles for the Swiss newspaper Le Temps and led hands-on activities with the public, such extracting DNA from onions and cheek cells. These experiences allowed her to envision other ways of practicing her passion for science and transmitting her enthusiasm to others.

In June 2011, Coulon met Suzanne Hraba-Renevey from swissnex Singapore at the University of Lausanne, and through her was introduced to swissnex San Francisco’s director, Christian Simm. The timing was perfect. Coulon was planning to move to California and the West Coast swissnex was looking for a scientist to join the team and work on public outreach. Simm offered her a job.

With her decision quickly made, it was goodbye Europe and hello America for the former bench scientist. More than the geographic change, Coulon had to get used to putting the laboratory behind her and entering a world where she wasn’t necessarily an expert. A tough step to take, but there was no turning back.

“It’s very exciting to be at the edge of knowledge and spend the day asking challenging questions,” Coulon says. On the other hand, she concedes, she’s also curious about science in general and the laboratory can sometimes get a bit monotonous. “I spent most of my time in a small lab at the hospital and even though my colleagues were great, I usually had more interactions with cells and mice.”

Going forward, Coulon says she’s ready to take on the challenge at swissnex and is already planning a new event series on the skin featuring artists, plastic surgeons, biologists, researchers, and engineers. And that’s only the beginning. “I’m not going to be bored in the next months,” she says.

And what about her new city? She totally agrees with her new housemate, who calls San Francisco a playground. “I have to get used to [the fact that] there are so many things to do and I don’t know what to choose usually,” admits Coulon. “I completely freak out.” In her spare time, she’s enjoying watching independent movies and listening to shoegaze rock music in the city’s many venues. She recently attended an Atlas Sound gig at a club called Bimbo’s 365. But what Coulon is enjoying the most so far, she says, is the nature and the beautiful California coast.

The swissnex San Francisco team is thrilled to have Coulon on board and is looking forward to 2012 fulfilling all resolutions and being one of its best years yet in terms of science programming and outreach.