illustration Mylène Ogliastro, a virologist at the head of the Plant Health and Environment Division

6 min

Mylène Ogliastro, a virologist at the head of the Plant Health and Environment Division

As from 1 September, management of INRAE's Plant Health and Environment (SPE) Division will be changing hands! After eight years as its Director, Christian Lannou will hand over this responsibility to Mylène Ogliastro, research director and leader of the Dynamics of Interactions between Densoviruses and Insects (DIDI) team at the Diversity, Genomes and Microbe-Insect Interactions (DGIMI) research unit. Interview with a Montpellier virologist.

Published on 10 September 2021

A research division of impressive scope that focuses on plant health and interactions

It all began with a call from INRAE management last March: Carole Caranta, Deputy Director General of Science & Innovation, offered Mylène Ogliastro the SPE Division Director position. "Once I had recovered from my surprise, I took a few days - and nights - to carefully consider the proposal:  Could I do the job? Was I ready to give up my life as a lab and field researcher?" recalled the Montpellier scientist by videoconference from her living room.

In the end, it was the challenge this opportunity presented along with her passionate commitment to the scientific community that won her over. So from 1 September, she will head the Plant Health and Environment (SPE) Division where she has been working as an INRAE researcher. With 23 research units spread throughout France and about 800 permanent and 600 contract staff members, the large-scale INRAE Division spans the entire country, including its overseas departments and regions. "This new role will require a lot of travel. Open-ended passes to the French railways and Air France are vital accessories for the life of a division director," joked Mylène Ogliastro.

What is the thread that binds all the SPE Division teams? "The wide range of topics studied at SPE revolves around four major research areas. First, understanding how plants interact and the relationships they develop with partner or pathogenic organisms. Second, analysing the link between plant health and their environment. Third, using the plant-insect and insect-insect interactions studied as part of the preceding areas to develop biocontrol, a sustainable crop pest management method that is not based on pesticides. Finally, anticipating health risks and preventing biological invasions," explained the future SPE Division director.

Scientific curiosity and encounters as her compass

From her native Corsica to SPE Division director, the path was far from foreordained. "I ended up in research through a series of coincidences and encounters. I come from a background where no one had done lengthy studies and I didn't dream about becoming a scientist as a child. But ever since I was small, I have been passionate about science." Her curiosity led her to study science in university, where she earned a DEA (post-graduate degree), followed by a scientific attaché (ASC) position in 1990 at INRA - INRAE's forerunner – in Saint-Christol-lez-Alès.

Research at that site involved insect diseases, particularly those associated with viruses. She spent four years there doing her thesis, a period that allowed her to discover a new field of research, i.e. viruses that infect insects, and an institute that she has never left. "When I arrived with my very general insect ecophysiology DEA degree from UPMC-INA-PG (Pierre and Marie Curie University-French National Agricultural Sciences Institute at Paris-Grignon), I didn’t know anything about virology," laughed Mylène Ogliastro. The unit's director, Gérard Devauchelle, took her under his wings and taught her to love viruses as much he did.

Taking advantage of her ASC status, she left the French Mediterranean climate for California’s Mediterranean climate to do a two-year post-doc at the University of San Diego. "During the post-doc in the US, I focused on transcription mechanisms," explained the Montpellier researcher. She learned a great deal from this experience but it was bitter-sweet: "I discovered an international environment that I adored and how to work in a group, but there was also a less rosy competitive aspect, where postdoctoral students competed against each other while working in the same lab."

Shortly after her return to France, she witnessed the closing of the Saint-Christol-lez-Alès station. "That was a very difficult period. A time of doubt when I asked myself a lot of questions, particularly about my scientific interests. I decided to leave to deepen my understanding of virology, which up to then was fairly simplistic and centred on cell cultures. I was studying entomoviruses without having seen many insects! From 2002 to 2005, I worked in the Biology of Development Institute in Marseille, focusing  on the fruit fly, a very well-known model organism, in order to better understand the physiology and biology of insect development at a molecular level. I learned a lot in that environment."

During that period, a Saint-Christol-lez-Alès research facility took root in Montpellier. The unit's director at the time, Philippe Fournier, put his trust in Mylène Ogliastro to come back and set up a team to work on insect-virus interactions. That became the forerunner of the DGIMI research unit at the University of Montpellier where she still works as a researcher, while waiting to take up her duties as the SPE Division Director.

Between continuity and close collaboration

To begin her new life in research management and support, Mylène Ogliastro is planning to base herself on the outgoing team's heritage: "Christian Lannou and his deputies have developed a really relevant and well-thought-out road map that I feel is important to base myself on to begin my work. It would make no sense to turn everything upside down," admitted the future Division Director. Her main goal: providing scientists with the means to carry out ambitious and innovative research and developing research platforms and projects that bring labs together around common goals.

But before all that, this lover of Science, who will continue her research activities until the end of 2021, feels that her future role as "symphony conductor" cannot be successful without the active participation of all those who are carrying out the research. "I plan to continue the close collaboration that Christian Lannou was able to build with the unit heads and make the most collegial decisions possible. Because it is our teams' discoveries that will determine our future research directions. You learn by doing," concluded Mylène Ogliastro.

François MALLORDYtranslated by Sheryl Mellor


Mylène OGLIASTRO division headplant health and environment (SPE)