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PhD in mechanics

Georges Omer & C. Schoch

Already in junior high school, Asmahana Zeghadi dreamed of becoming a scientist. She became one by defending a thesis in materials science and engineering at the Ecole des Mines in Paris. Since then she has been a research engineer with EDF’s “Les Renardières” R&D center. Here’s the history of a brilliant career path.

Asmahana Zeghadi smiles when you ask her if the title “Dr.” is printed on her calling card. No, it’s not. And yet at the age of 32, she is a PhD, having successfully defended her thesis at the Ecole des Mines in Paris, quite precisely on December 8, 2005.
A week after the defense, she came to EDF’s “Les Renardières” R&D center in Moret-sur-Loing in the Seine-et-Marne department, as a mechanical research engineer.

Theory… and practice
Actually, Asmahana has always had a flair for science, ever since she was a youngster in junior high in Bouligny, in the Meuse department in eastern France. She had top grades in all subjects, including literature. But science was her calling. Not mechanics right away: as a sophomore at the University of Paris VI, she studied math, physics, chemistry... and mechanics.
That was the specialism she finally chose for her BS (she also holds a Master’s and a pre-doctoral degree). Why? “Maybe because the field has many practical applications,” she explains, “even if mechanics as it is taught at Paris VI remains very theory-oriented.”
Mechanics, she repeats, is everywhere: when she gets in her car to go to work, when she cooks meals, as well. Asmahana has none of the “trappings” of a mechanic, up to her elbows in grease. When she applied to the Ecole des Mines, her thesis topic was “The Effect of Deformation Gradients on the Mechanical Behavior of Polycrystalline Aggregates.”
What appealed to her at the time was the opportunity to do the research for her thesis with an industrial concern, in this case the steel giant Arcelor. Asmahana in fact studied steel for automobile bodies. “I’d never had any contact with industry at the University before,” she says, “and this encounter was decisive for the beginning of my career.”
She in fact realized that industrial research had a more practical side and that interested her, because academic research findings are not as tangible at first. So it was industry, with a preference – so says her résumé – for the automobile industry.

Improving nuclear power plants
It didn’t take Asmahana long to find the position she was looking for. After the “Firtech Forum,” which brings together PhD students and corporate representatives, at which she had presented her doctoral research, a researcher from the  “La Renardières” center who had attended the forum passed her résumé on to his boss.
There was an opening for a research engineer in microstructure calculations. Asmahana was interested. She saw EDF as a major group that offered career opportunities, and the subject suited her to a T, since it was in line with what she studied for her thesis.
A few interviews later, she was hired. Today, she studies the mechanical behavior and damage phenomena of steel tanks and concrete enclosures. She knows that her work – which remains highly theoretical – will serve to improve the safety and extend the lifespan of nuclear power plants. She conducts research and knows what for. That’s what she enjoys.

In 2006, EDF R&D recruited about 60 % of its engineers from the major French engineering schools (Polytechnique, Supélec, etc.).
EDF R&D plays the role of a recruitment pool; it enables young hires to join the company and contribute their knowledge. A few years later, some may pursue their career in another of the Group’s departments, usually in a technical or management position.
EDF R&D, with a broad spectrum of expertise, also hosts over 200 young PhD students at any one time, half of them doing their thesis under contract with the company. Some of them, once they have pocketed their PhD, are recruited and move into the field of expertise.

Source : Vivre EDF number 46, march 2007.