Christine Cherbut is proof that it’s possible to be both modest and proud. She weighs her words thoughtfully: “I was born in a working-class neighbourhood in Saint Étienne. Higher studies weren’t really in the cards,” but that little girl never really had much heed for such classist notions.
The challenges of innovative, cutting-edge research
“I’ve always loved exploring and learning new things,” says Cherbut. “I knew from a very early age that being a researcher would suit me.” Fascinated by natural sciences, Cherbut was initially drawn to medicine. After graduating secondary school with a science-stream diploma, she enrolled in a biochemical engineering degree in the National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA) in Lyon. Cherbut has fond memories of her time there. “INSA had people from all walks of life, studying in all kinds of fields,” she says. Cherbut also discovered her passion for rugby at INSA, and remains committed to its sense of camaraderie. “Everyone has a place there, be they big or small, well built or wiry,” she says.
Christine Cherbut became Deputy Director General of Science and Innovation on 1 January 2020 at INRAE, the new institute formed following the merger of INRA and IRSTEA. For Cherbut, INRAE is both an ambitious scientific project and a commitment to the planet and its inhabitants: it is about conducting research to develop agriculture that supports life for farmers, territories and the environment; to produce healthy and sustainable food that is accessible to all; to protect our natural resources and biodiversity; and to overcome the global climate and social crises.
Cherbut sees the creation of this institute as an opportunity to be seized: “The creation of INRAE opens up a world of possibilities and to take a fresh look at fundamental issues as we look for new solutions.” In her opinion, one of the keys to success will be working with the entire INRAE scientific and technical community as well as partners and stakeholders to develop the Institute’s scientific priorities throughout 2020. She adds that the INRAE’s strength is being recognised as a scientific leader on the global stage in the areas of agriculture, food and the environment, which the Institute will be able to study with an integrated and interdisciplinary approach. The aim is to produce fundamental knowledge, apply this knowledge to develop tangible applications and innovations, and provide expertise to support public policies. This requires us to conduct our research in conjunction with academic and business partners, associations and citizens so that “ideas and knowledge flow in both directions”. INRAE researchers constantly communicate and interact with stakeholders in the field, and the partnership structures that we develop are forums for meeting and discussion amongst many different players to ensure a dynamic of co-construction. Cherbut says, “We have to be more willing to include citizens in the debate to give them a voice in research. We also have an educational role to play by passing on scientific knowledge to society.” It is an ambitious goal, but the challenges ahead are just as tremendous.
Exploring the human microbiota
After graduating INSA in 1982, Cherbut was recruited by INRA as a research assistant, a position that served to further her Ph.D. research on the physiochemical properties of dietary fibres at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse. She arrived at INRA Nantes in 1985 and became a research scientist in human nutrition. “Up to that point, we were only looking at animal nutrition,” she says. Cherbut’s work led her to study diet, which has been a research focus ever since. A real epicurean at heart, she says diet “is a good way to understand the human spirit”. In the 1980s however, the relationship between diet and health was not widely recognised. “You’re dieticians,” people would say, “you study the effects of soup”. Ever tenacious, Cherbut set her sights on studying the human digestive tract. “Microbiota was completely disregarded at the time. The term hardly even existed,” she says. This groundbreaking work helped to establish the Research Centre in Human Nutrition of Nantes (CRNH) in 1995, with Cherbut as its chief science officer. In 1998, she was nominated director of her research unit. In 2000, she became Vice-President of the Committee on Human Nutrition of the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA), which later became the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) in 2010.
In the early 2000s, a headhunter working for Nestlé contacted Cherbut. “I wasn’t really that keen to leave,” says Cherbut. It took three visits to Nestlé’s research centre in Lausanne to sway her. There, as Director of the Scientific Nutritional Support Department, she established the company’s Nutrition, Health and Wellness Programme. Cherbut was content at Nestlé, but never forgot her INRA roots, and even sat on the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board during that time.
A voice for the Institute
In 2011, a phone call from then INRA President Marion Guillou triggered Cherbut’s return to the fold. Guillou asked Cherbut to take up the role of Scientific Director for Food, after the passing of the previous Director a few weeks prior. For six years, Cherbut worked in partnership with the Management Board to bring together research on agricultural production, food processing and diet. “We understood that we could not just look at feeding people; we also had to think about their physical, psychological and social needs too. The health and wellbeing of people ultimately stem from what’s going on in the field.”
Her efforts were recognised in 2017 through her nomination as Deputy Director General for Scientific Affairs. “INRA is my family,” she says lovingly. In her new role, she draws heavily on the Orientation Document for 2025. “This document sets the tone for a new era in agriculture and food, environmental protection and the fight against climate change. These are new challenges for innovative, cutting-edge research,” she says.
Her term as Deputy Director General will come to an end in 2021, but Cherbut is not the type to be worried about the future. “Everything that’s happened to me has been unexpected,” she says. “It’s all been the product of a lot of good luck, chance meetings, hard work and curiosity. I’m happy about that.” Modest and proud, through and through.
- 57 years old, single, no children.
- 1982: engineering degree in biochemistry from INSA Lyon.
- 1985: Ph.D. in animal physiology from the National Veterinary School of Toulouse, with dissertation on dietary fibre and digestive motility.
- 1986: research scientist in human nutrition at INRA Nantes.
- 1995: accreditation to supervise research from INRA Nantes.
- 1995–2003: Chief Science Officer of the Research Centre in Human Nutrition (CRHN) of Nantes.
- 1998–2003: Director of the Digestive Functions and Human Nutrition (FDNH) Unit, INRA Nantes.
- 2000–2003: Vice-President of the Committee on Human Nutrition at the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA).
- 2003–2011: Director of the Scientific Nutritional Support Department at Nestlé.
- 2011–2017: Scientific Director for Food, and later for Food, Nutrition and Bioeconomy at INRA.
- Since April 2017: INRA Deputy Director General for Scientific Affairs.