"It started with a failure!"

She will send six amateur astronauts into an underground tunnel under the Alps to simulate a space mission. A student at the EPFL, Chloé Carrière lives her passion for astronomy alongside her classes.
Chloé Carrière, 22 years old. Master's student in technology management at EPFL. (Image: EPFL/Alain Herzog)

The young Frenchwoman says she is passionate about space, and we take her word for it. In 2019, Chloé Carrière founded the association Space@yourservice to catalyse projects for the popularisation of space sciences. She organises meetings for the general public in bars in Lausanne (Astronomy on tap) and creates an escape room that plunges the visitor into a lunar base on the verge of losing contact with the Earth. A year later, she launched the Asclepios mission, which brought together some 100 students from Switzerland and abroad to establish a space base in the Grimsel underground test site at an altitude of 1,700 metres. In the midst of the pandemic, she then launched the Galactic Chloé Show, a talk show filmed at the EPFL with personalities from the campus. After a bachelor's degree in physics, Chloé Carrière went on to complete a master's degree in technology management and pursued her other hobby: pole dancing, which she practises in competition.

Where do you find the energy to do all these things?

I won’t lie to you: it's not always easy to combine my studies with these activities. You have to be passionate. For me, there is no difference between a Sunday and a Monday, and it's the same for most of the people around me. You have to be well organised and able to switch easily from projects to studies.

Where does your passion for space come from?

From the Planck space mission, which I heard about at the age of 15. It drew up an ultra-precise map of the cosmological background, a picture of the Universe when it was still only 380,000 years old. I wanted to go into space. I chose the EPFL, because it put the emphasis not only on the academic aspect, but also on innovation and all those things that go on besides classes.

«I can see a real willingness on the part of the EPFL to find solutions that also support this kind of project»      Chloé Carrière

How did you start science popularisation?

Through failure! Despite all my efforts, I repeated my first year at EPFL. As I only had a few exams to retake, I suddenly had more time for the rest. I wanted to organise astronomy meetings in bars. I presented this project to two institutions, the EPFL Space Center and the Swiss Space Center. Their management supported me with some funding and, above all, valuable contacts and advice. I was then able to join the Science Studio programme at Swissnex San Francisco, during which I developed the escape room, a game that simulates an incident on a lunar base.

You have set up Asclepios, a project that wants to simulate a space mission in a tunnel under the Alps?

It's a big initiative that I'm co-directing with another physics student from EPFL. It now brings together about a hundred students from EPFL and abroad. Three men and three women will take on the role of astronauts in the space base. It will be located in the Grimsel underground test site.

Do you feel sufficiently supported in these projects by the academic environment?

Yes, the beginning of Asclepios was more complicated, because the project didn't really fit into the boxes. It is a bottom-up initiative proposed by students. With its many global components, it differs from more typical engineering projects – like building a car, a drone or a rocket... But it paid off. I can see a real willingness on the part of the EPFL to find solutions that also support this kind of project.

That is to say?

On the one hand, offering some logistic support and advice, for example on legal matters. On the other hand, ensuring that students can get additional credit for their work for Asclepios. To this end, we identify scientific projects that can be the subject of a semester or master's thesis, and we discuss with professors the possibilities to accompany them.

How many hours do you spend on Asclepios?

It's hard to say... Maybe 30 hours a week.

Do your studies suffer from that?

Such a project requires you to make choices. It often takes precedence over my studies. It doesn't just concern me, but dozens of students and scientists, partners, funding... Compared to that, it doesn't seem so serious if my master's degree were to take another year. Luckily, master's degrees are flexible. Having said that, my studies are going very well, with good grades! 

Don’t forget that once I enter the job market, soft skills – project management, communication, teamwork, solving a variety of problems –count as much as the course material itself. What you learn in a project like Asclepios is very formative, and I am convinced that the students who work with us will easily find an internship or a job after finishing their studies.

In the midst of the pandemic, Chloé Carrière launched the Galactic Chloé Show, a talk show filmed at the EPFL with personalities from the campus.

What advice would you give to your colleagues who are interested in projects outside the classroom?

Don't be afraid to think outside the box and knock on doors! I sent an email to astronaut Claude Nicollier without really expecting an answer. But he did it in less than two hours. For me, the most important thing is not to put barriers in your way – like saying you can't do this or that – and not be too afraid of failure. When we study, our goal is to learn. So we have the right to make mistakes. Repeating my first year was the first big failure of my life, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.

And what can institutions do to encourage pathways such as yours?

I'm not sure that I can give advice, my vision is still rather limited... I find it very positive that the EPFL promotes major projects by integrating them into the curriculum, particularly within the framework of the MAKE programme (see our interview "Above all, we need to change the culture"). One idea would be to somewhat reduce the importance of theoretical courses to leave more room for other projects in which the acquired knowledge is applied. For me, they bring more meaning and motivation. 

And to be more open to young people who take up popularisation. I sometimes felt that I was not necessarily taken as seriously as more experienced colleagues. But I have to say that on the whole my experience is very positive!

Our series on students and science

Students study, and scientists publish. This is the daily routine of universities and research institutes.

But these institutions now want to encourage unusual paths: the creation of start-ups, interdisciplinary projects, international competitions, and the popularisation of science. "We have to avoid anything that might generate resistance," says Pascal Vuilliomenet, head of the Discovery Learning Program at EPFL (see our interview). We met two female students and a researcher who have created their own scientific path, next to classrooms and labs.