illustration Thierry Caquet, an insatiable curiosity about nature
© INRAE

5 min

Thierry Caquet, an insatiable curiosity about nature

As the Scientific Director for the Environment at INRA, which became INRAE in January 2020, Thierry Caquet has been interested in the diversity of the living world for years. From the aquatic environments he studied in the early days of his career to the broader environment, he has constantly expanded his areas of interest and skills while becoming increasingly involved in the Institute’s research strategy.
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Published on 19 April 2019

 

Scientist, technician, intellectual... curiosity has been the common denominator throughout Thierry Caquet’s life since childhood. His field of predilection? Life sciences. His sources of inspiration? The books he has always collected and held dear, his environment which never ceases to amaze him, and the colleagues he crosses paths with from time to time, as well as those he works with day in and day out, taking great pleasure in sharing his passion.  

This is the common thread he continues to weave into the fabric of INRA.  

Fascinated by the wonderful world of life sciences

From the start of his university studies, Thierry was smitten with ecology, and especially freshwater environments. The scientific literature he encountered and passionate teachers and researchers he had the fortune of meeting had a greater influence on him than the pond in the family garden! He started collecting degrees, culminating in a doctoral degree in general Ecology. At the time, ecotoxicology was coming to the fore, while questions about the use and impact of pesticides were starting to pop up in the public discourse. Over the course of his thesis, already far-removed from laboratory research on the relationship between dose and response, he started evaluating the merit of using mesocosms, that is, experimental ecosystems that he created and organised himself to study the consequences of the accidental presence of insecticides used to protect crops in still water ecosystems. Natural pools, ponds, marshes and other so-called “lentic”, or still water, environments, abound in the agricultural landscape. And they are precious havens for biodiversity.

True to his taste for sharing knowledge, Thierry thought he would become a science teacher when he was in high school. But in the end, his teaching career would kick off at university level. He has fond memories of this time, thanks especially to many in-field internships in Brittany, which would soon become his home. Ten years later, a little frustrated at not being able to teach and conduct research in equal measure, he joined INRA for a first 2-year immersive experience in Rennes. Enthusiastic about new activities and a new environment, Thierry dove right into a daily routine that mixed freshwater ecology, ecotoxicology and mesocosms.

The dawn of the new millennium was the cue for Thierry to turn the page once and for all on his university career and join INRA. He was recruited in 2001 as head of research in what is today the Ecology and Ecosystem Health research unit (INRA, AgroCampusOuest). While he is still interested in the effects of pesticides on different levels of biological organisation (from individuals to communities), he is gradually turning his attention to one thing: communities of invertebrates. He combines analysis of the diversity of species with approaches to the underlying processes of ecosystems, and is slowly turning away from the mesocosms of his early career to work more directly in the natural environment.  

This was also the time for Thierry to consolidate his skills and share his expertise. A member of different scientific boards, committees, working groups and other organisations even before joining INRA, he eventually got involved in several of INRA’s public partnering bodies to examine issues that range from knowledge of biodiversity to plant health products, notably linked to research programmes of the Ministry of Ecology or those of the Ecophyto plan piloted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. That is how he discovered what it means to span different disciplines, finding his place in communities which were until then less familiar to him, such as agronomic sciences. In 2005, Thierry contributed to the collective scientific expert report Pesticides, agriculture and the environment. Carried out by INRA and Cemagref (today IRSTEA - the national Institute of research in science and technology for the environment and agriculture) at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing and the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, the report made a unique mark on how INRA approaches the issue of crop protection.

Always learning, always discovering something new

Years passed, and Thierry became a research director at INRA. Then, the head of his division, Jean-Marc Guehl, asked him to be the Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology division’s deputy head. This was Thierry’s chance to get involved in the management side of a large community and gain an insider’s view of how research is programmed and managed. After visiting many research units and participating in open competitions to recruit staff, he reaped the fruits of working with passionate colleagues. In fact, it often left him with the impression of having gone back to school, be it for evolutionary biology, ecophysiology, or forest sciences!

Serving the broader scientific community

In 2013, Thierry took the reins of the Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology division, fully aware of INRA’s display of trust in asking him to step up to the job. He wholeheartedly embraced the task of scientific steering as head of the division, pleading for a collegiate governance that reflects a value he holds dear: trust. With the support of his colleagues, deputy division heads as well as administrative teams in the Champenoux forest, it was an intense period, full of challenges and expanded responsibilities. The following year, Thierry found himself at the helm of INRA’s Metaprogramme ACCAF - Adaptation of agriculture and forests to climate change. It was yet another opportunity to get interested in something new while broadening horizons in a context of climate change and mounting global stakes.

Time flies!

The years flew by. There was precious little time anymore, for this aviation history buff, to hop on a lightweight aircraft and take off!

Thierry became INRA’s Scientific Director for the Environment in 2017. This came with a slew of change: in the public he had to deal with, in the scope of things, and responsibility load toward the Institute. Well aware of all this, Thierry felt like he was making a useful contribution, helping define and implement INRA’s strategy, especially when it came to the Institute’s Management Board. While he feels he was able to take advantage of opportunities that came knocking or that he actively sought out, he also remembers the people who crossed his path or walk with him now. “Wonderful encounters”, he fondly calls them.

There is no place for nostalgia when he ponders the near-20 years of his career spent in team projects in his field of expertise in support of public policy-making in the service of the environment. On the contrary, he is convinced that the only way to look is forward, for there remains much to do.

 

 

Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemanntranslated by Inge Laino