illustration  Carole Caranta, a smooth strategist
© INRAE B. Nicolas

Agroecology 6 min

Carole Caranta, a smooth strategist

Since 1st January 2020, Carole Caranta is INRAE's Associate Deputy Director General for Science & Innovation. She was previously head of a scientific division that brings together more than 70% of researchers in plant biology and breeding nationwide. Carole Caranta plays a key role in INRAE’s (formerly INRA) research and partnership strategies. Her career is marked by a passion for science, openness to others, striking a balance between fundamental and targeted research, and forging socio-economic partnerships.

Published on 22 May 2019

Do things with drive and passion, be open to possibilities

In addition to her second term as Head of the Plant Biology and Breeding division, Carole Caranta also directs the Plant2Pro Carnot Institute - a key tool for building socio-economic partnerships - and manages an inter-disciplinary scientific foresight study. Neither the realisation of a childhood dream nor the fruit of a well-laid career plan, Carole explains how she got here: “I’m an enthusiastic person. I want to do things with drive and passion. It’s not about me, but about being open to possibility”. Carole was bitten by the research bug during a first summer internship when she was earning the French DEUG, a 2-year university general studies diploma, at INRA in Avignon. Several other internships in INRA labs followed, where she wrote her thesis. Her research focussed on genetics and resistance to disease in peppers and tomatoes. Then, Carole and her team discovered a molecular resistance mechanism preserved in the plant kingdom that allows plants to prevent viruses from replicating. Their findings earned them international recognition and Carole became more and more involved in leadership roles and scientific strategy before giving up research proper.  For her, it was “a fast and welcome evolution. Over the course of my career”, she continues, “I was lucky to meet extraordinary teachers, thesis advisors, scientific colleagues and heads of divisions who enriched me and believed in me. I think was able to take their advice and answer the door when opportunity knocked”.  

Setting sights on new horizons, with a human touch

Stepping up to the helm of the Plant Genetics and Breeding division in 2012 came hand in hand with the task of merging the division, which traditionally focussed on targeted research geared toward socio-economic partners, with the Plant Biology division, which is smaller in terms of staff and focussed more on fundamental research. Much to her surprise, Carole soon found herself in charge of the newly-formed division. “The merger was quite easy from a scientific point of view”, she says. “Many units were already headed by the two divisions, there was overlap in terms of topics, and the genome revolution blurred the boundaries between model crops and cultivated crops”, she says. Today, Carole appreciates the diversity of the Plant Biology and Breeding division, “from its excellent basic research, recognised internationally, to genetics, plant breeding, experimentation and management of genetic resources”. It is this diversity that is the strength of the division, and she sees the importance of keeping it alive.

Tap into collective intelligence

The merger was also enriching from a human point of view: “You can’t carry out targeted research and forge high-impact partnerships without a very solid foundation of fundamental research. Making this combination possible is what I continue to work for!” Creating a strategic plan and an evaluation in 2013-2014 were key moments that helped unify the new division. To pave the way forward, Carole tapped into its collective intelligence: “I’ve always liked leading groups, getting ideas flowing, coming up with a strategy and a vision. It’s about tapping into the best talent and skills to make things happen. The division’s management team is exemplary in that sense!”

When questioned, Carole says that her gender never got in the way, even noting, not without a touch of humour, that she was in fact the third woman to be named Head of the Plant Genetics and Breeding division in 2012… She does, however, appreciate the fact that INRA recently achieved gender parity for the whole of its division Heads. In her opinion, “This equilibrium means greater scope and vision”.

Toward agroecology with breakthrough innovations

Having succeeded in striking a balance in the new division, Carole is broadening her horizons with a leading role in the Plant2Pro Carnot Institute, which brings together research bodies and technical institutes. “Ever since I started working on molecular mechanisms of resistance to viruses, I’ve appreciated and used socio-economic partnerships to gear very basic research towards concrete applications”, she says. The goals of Plant2Pro are very widespread: genetics, plant breeding and biotechnologies, but also plant health with a focus on biocontrol, and lastly agronomy, innovative crop systems, and digital agriculture. For this, 14 INRA research units in three divisions work with three technical institutes.

Participatory research can be another source of innovation

Genetics is still a very competitive field that receives far more private funding than INRA can afford, for example in genomic selection. Carole explains, however, that “our research acts as a compliment to, and an interactive part of, that which is carried out in the private sector”. For example, research into new traits for future crops that will become part of agricultural systems in line with agroecology requires that science get creative and set its sights on new horizons. The goal is to select plants that are better adapted to innovative farming systems and better exploit the microbiota of soil, or even to shift the focus onto “service” crops. “But industrial players won’t invest in these fields on their own”, explains Carole. “It’s too risky for them, even though the stakes for society at large are high. We steer our researchers toward agroecology through incentive support, management of scientific activities, and joint projects with partners”. Participatory research can be another source of innovation. Two participatory breeding projects, involving wheat and durum wheat, carried out with farmers and associations, led to new varieties adapted to the needs of organic farming.  

Many partners also work with the best international teams on strategic subjects for basic or more targeted research. Recently, Carole travelled with an INRA delegation to China, where an International Associated Laboratory (LIA) that focuses on grapevines was set up. Meanwhile, an LIA to study the impact of climate change on fruit trees is in the works with INRA’s Brazilian counterpart, Embrapa.

Opening up new horizons with foresight studies

I’m learning tons!

For the past 18 months, Carole has been in charge of running an “interdisciplinary scientific foresight study on predictive approaches in biology and ecology”, which will help map out a plan of action for INRA. To this end, she heads a steering committee and thematic working groups that involve about 100 members, with researchers from other institutes, including Inria. Once again, she makes sure to tap into collective intelligence: “For example, with this foresight study, even I, who was never very big on maths, am learning tons!”

Carole is committed body and soul, but is willing to share the keys to achieving balance: “I’m able to take a step back and look at things, which is important for these types of jobs”. She enjoys time spent with her large and blended family, loves to travel, and practices sport. She makes a point of setting priorities for herself, even if it’s not always easy, “otherwise you end up working day and night”. That is why she keeps a close-knit team and puts all her trust in them: “I like delegating and I think I’m good at surrounding myself with the right people”.

“It’s always new and exciting” she concludes. Going forward, she sees herself continuing to work on strategic topics for the Institute and continuing to lead, with a strong accent on innovation and partnerships.  

 

Nicole Ladettranslated by Inge Laino

Contacts

Carole CarantaHead of the Biology and Plant Breeding Department

Division