International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Agnes Fouet

Posted on February 11, 2022   by Microbiology Society

In 2010, Agnes Fouet (CNRS) succeeded Charles Dorman as Editor-in-Chief of Microbiology. As part of the 75th anniversary of the journal, we spoke to Agnes about her time as Editor-in-Chief and her experience as a woman in science.

Please tell us a bit about yourself (who you are, what you work on and where are you based). 

I am a research director at the Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique in France, meaning I am a full-time researcher in a governmental agency. I started by studying biology with a major in microbiology, at the University of Paris, defended two theses, equivalent to a PhD and a Habilitation diploma, working on sucrose metabolism in Bacillus subtilis. I then moved to Tufts Medical school, Boston, MA, for a post-doctoral training, studying the link between catabolic and sporulation repressions in Bacillus subtilis. Then I came back to Paris and started my group at the Institut Pasteur shifting the focus of my work on host – pathogen interaction. My model was Bacillus anthracis and I studied the regulation of expression of the virulence genes as well as the synthesis and the set-up of surface components.  

Twenty years later I decided to move again geographically and thematically. Currently I work at the Institut Cochin which is based on a hospital campus in Paris. I am still interested in the host –pathogen relationship, more precisely in the early stages of invasive infections. My study model is Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as Group A Streptococcus, GAS.  

GAS causes a wide range of infections leading to 517,000 deaths annually. These are noninvasive infections, such as pharyngitis and impetigo, and invasive infections, such as necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease), bacteremia and puerperal fever. Before the introduction of efficient hygienic prophylactic measures at the end of the 19th century, this infection led to the death of up to 10% of women during the postpartum period. GAS-related puerperal fever occurs within the first two days postpartum, with rapid progression to severe sepsis. Part of my work focuses on the properties of GAS that enable it to elicit puerperal fever and that favor its swift establishment. 

How did you get involved in the Microbiology Society and then Microbiology?  

In 1995, I was invited to become an Editor for Microbiology. After hesitation and reflection, I gladly accepted. Our laboratory had published a paper in Microbiology 18 months before and this had been a very good experience. I was then offered to become a member of the Microbiology Society and I thought there was some coherence in joining the Society, which I did. I learned about the various meetings, and more particularly the Annual Conference, which I was happy to attend regularly. It was an easy way to attend a non-specialized international meeting, and to have a wonderful overview of what was going on in microbiology, even if I focused more on the bacteriology sessions. I also suggested to the PhD fellows working with me to attend these meetings and one obtained a travel grant to present her work … at her first international meeting.  

In 2001, I was invited to become a Senior Editor (2002–2007) and in 2009 to be Editor-in-Chief (2010–2015). These were very interesting and enlightening periods: getting to know more and more about the publishing process, and participating in decision making instances to define the Microbiology Society publishing policy. 

What were some of the hot topics during your term as Editor-in-Chief?  

Difficult question. I chose two topics. 

There have always been microbiologists interested in the host-pathogen interaction. During 2000–2010, neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) became a hot topic and immediately afterwards, searching for bacterial means of counteracting them was also a hot topic.  

The studies of microbiotes also really exploded at the end of the 2010 and the following decade, this was consequently a hot topic during the 2010 –2015 period.  

I would like to indicate two papers, highlighted as Editor’s choice, that were published on these themes.  

What were some of your highlights as Editor-in-Chief, and your biggest challenges in the role?  

These were possible thanks to the support of the Society, the administrative staff and Microbiology Senior Editors and Editors. 

Together with the other Editors-in-Chief from the Microbiology Society, we expanded the Society’s publication portfolio, adding JMM case reports, now Access Microbiology (2014), and Microbial Genomics (2015). 

For Microbiology, we created a new section, namely Microbe profiles. I am proud of it, because the papers written on invitation for this section are very informative for microbiologists not directly working on the topic and food for thought to those involved in the discussed topic. I still read these regularly. 

On a more practical point of view, we rebranded the Information for Authors section, to delete redundancies that had been accumulating throughout the years and to have a more straightforward guide, more in line with the current modes of reviewing. 

I found it difficult to invite as many women as I would have liked to become Editors or Senior Editors. This was mainly due to too few women names being suggested during our editorial meetings. This may have been a direct consequence of the careers offered to men and women in European countries and of more men than women presenting their work during scientific meetings. 

The other barrier I was unable to overcome was identifying the individuals. Indeed, recruiting Editors goes beyond looking at the publication record; knowing the individuals is necessary. 

As a woman working in science, what challenges have you faced?  

In France, we have the chance of possessing an excellent daycare system. Furthermore, my spouse and I shared the household chores equally. In consequence, I was able to devote the time and energy I wanted to my research. I must add that I was lucky enough to have three great mentors, my PI and a tutor during my PhD training, and my post-doctoral training PI; they trusted me and let me know. Having said that, the biggest challenge was to be listened to, in the sense of being taken seriously, during presentations in front of hiring or promotion committees, when speaking in various scientific or organizational committees. Also, it was sometimes necessary to make it clear that my research activity was not a simple hobby, that I did not hold a minor job, that there was no reason for men scientists with equivalent CVs to be evaluated, hired, promoted, first.  

How do you think things have changed for women working in science over the course of your career so far? 

We can now access any position. However, to that aim, we have to do backwards and in high heels what men do in forward motion and in flat shoes, inspired by a comment Governor A. Richards made during an election speech*. However, we now suffer from rumors that say that we are invited to participate in various bodies (editorial, evaluation, management committees, etc) only to satisfy a requirement of parity and not simply because we are competent. 

* “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” Ann Richards 

Is there any advice that you would want to give to other women working in science? 

Life exists outside science, and I do not feel legitimate to give advice on this aspect of your life. Regarding your scientific life, trust yourself, do not underestimate yourself. For those whose upbringing is contrary to this, go beyond it and do not hesitate to put yourself on the front stage, to show what you are worth. Then, do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do and achieve, whether it is science or para-scientific activities (in learned societies, journals, meeting organizations, evaluation committees ...).  

Why does microbiology matter? 

Hopefully, we do not really have to advocate for microbiology anymore, do we? The COVID pandemic has demonstrated the necessity for basic and applied research in microbiology. Also, microbes are not only pathogens; there are all the beneficial microbes we should not forget and should study. I have in mind members of the microbiotes as well as bacteria and yeast used to produce cheese and wine, beer and bread, but also all those species that are at work in the soil, in the seas, that we do not even now about yet. Finally, experimenting on and with microbes may be more straightforward than with more complex organisms. Therefore, they are an almost infinite source of fundamental discoveries concerning the mechanisms of life. Their deciphering, understanding, description can then be transferred to other organisms. I am thus convinced that microbiology still matters very much.