Voices for change: Celebrating diversity within the AO
As a well-respected research scientist and the attentive mother of two children (eight and twelve years old), Dr Sophie Verrier is accustomed to always proving her skills, reaching her goals, and balancing two worlds. As principal scientist in the AO Research Institute Davos (ARI) Regenerative Orthopaedics Program, Verrier has—through determination and hard work—found a balance that makes it possible for her to succeed in both her professional and family lives.
“Since I got my PhD degree, I heard more than once, ‘What more do you want to achieve? When will you stop?’ To that, my answer always has been, ‘When I cannot go further.’ When I became a mother, I also heard that I cannot have both a high-level career in research and a family and should choose more family-compatible work," said Verrier, whose research focuses on bone regeneration and healing, with emphasis on vascularization. “There, my response was, ‘No. I will show you. I can do it.’”
That “I will show you” attitude has been Verrier’s go-to across her career.
"Throughout my studies and early career, I often had to demonstrate that I deserved to be taken seriously not only because I was consistently younger than my peers, but also and perhaps primarily because I am a woman,” she explained.
"If you aim high and you stop just short of your goal, you have still achieved something.”
Inspiring role models
Verrier was born in mainland France but lived until the age of eleven on La Réunion, a French overseas department and region.
“My mother grew up on La Réunion. This is a small island, and at the time, there was no university there, so anyone who wanted to continue their studies had to move to mainland France,” she recalled. "Because my parents did not want us to have to move 13,000 km away from the family to study, they moved the family back to the Hexagone so that we could already be in an environment where universities were available.”
Verrier’s first role model was her mother.
“I always was supported by my parents, but my original life mentor is my mom, who always encouraged me to work to become independent and to stay ambitious. She has always impressed on me the importance of having high objectives: "If you aim high and you stop just short of your goal, you have still achieved something,” Verrier explained. “But if you aim low, you may close too many doors. So, aim high, and continue as far as you can or you wish."
Verrier was also inspired by Prof Joëlle Amédée, who was her PhD supervisor in an Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (INSERM) unit of the University of Bordeaux II in France.
“As a woman, it is generally challenging to have both a research career and a family anywhere, in big or small cities, at universities, in industry, or at the AO.”
“She was—and still is—a very successful researcher holding a high position and was the mother of two. I saw that she could have a research career and a family, so I knew that I could, too,” the scientist said. “Often, people think or say that a career and a family are not very compatible, but I never wanted to have to choose between the two; men never have to. I wanted to be both: a good parent and a good researcher. I have always been determined not to compromise the work I’m doing because I love it, and I worked hard to get here; at the same time, I never compromised my family: I raise my kids just as everybody does. If I need to bake a cake for the next school day or do popcorn for the football team, even if it is midnight, I do it.”
Together, Verrier and her husband—Markus Windolf who, like her, is a high-achieving professional—have carved out an equitable distribution of family responsibility.
“I think we are 50/50 participants in the family responsibilities at every level. We work as a team; it’s a good balance. Even when we were just getting to know one another 20 years ago, Markus knew I was an ambitious person,” she said.
Verrier said the AO’s family atmosphere is another important factor.
“As a woman, it is generally challenging to have both a research career and a family anywhere, in big or small cities, at universities, in industry, or at the AO,” she said. "But as the AO is a big family, you do not feel alone. Like most new AO employees, I first arrived in Davos alone, far from family and friends, but I was directly onboarded and never felt isolated.”
“Do it because you love it and do not let anyone else decide for you or tell you that you cannot succeed.”
Inclusion, diversity, and mentorship
Verrier believes diversity establishes a foundation for the creativity necessary to carry out groundbreaking research.
“In biology, from the macroscopic scale to deep into the genome, diversity enriches. This is also true for society and the research field,” she said, "Diversity means creativity."
Verrier’s advice for young people, especially women going into science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine is firm.
“Do it because you love it and do not let anyone else decide for you or tell you that you cannot succeed,” she said. “If anyone tells you that you can’t do it, or that you should choose a less demanding career if you want to have children, just say or think to yourself, ‘Okay, well wait. You’ll see. I can do it.” And use that as your motivation. Once you’ve chosen your path, keep loving it—and keep doing it.”