When Aline Gouget got the phone call informing her that she had won the 2017 Irène Joliot-Curie Prize, she was thrilled: "I felt a big wave of energy and I was thrilled," she says.
The prize, which is judged by the French Academies of Science and Technology, rewards achievements by women in those fields, and Aline won the 'Women, Research and Enterprise' category for her work in advanced cryptography and its industrial application.
Aline wasn't just excited for herself, but also for Gemalto (before becoming Thales), where she is Advanced Cryptography Manager, and for the entire field she works in.
Research and development
The Irène Joliot-Curie* Prize doesn't recognize a specific project.
It was awarded based on Aline's entire career to date.
That career started at the University of Caen in northern France, where she studied mathematics.
"After doing pure mathematics, I wanted to study something with more concrete applications," she explains. "I discovered new areas related to information security and the theory of information, and that led me to cryptography."
She ended up writing her Ph.D. thesis on this subject, and after doing some work at France Télécom while she was researching it, she joined the company full-time in 2004 as a cryptography researcher.
Then, in 2006, she left to join Gemalto. "At France Télécom, I wasn't really connected to the products," she says. "I decided to join the group because it was a good opportunity to get experience in a commercial company. I could manage research activities and continue to publish academic papers. Still, I would also be working with different kinds of people, trying to understand the practical problems that occur when you're developing a product."
One of the main areas she works on at Thales is white-box cryptography, which protects cryptographic keys in software applications.
All of these research areas are aimed at foiling hackers, of course, but Aline prefers to emphasize the positive aspects of her work. "The challenge is to provide good mechanisms to protect privacy in an ever more connected world," she explains. "Everything we do is about enabling everyday life in the digital age."
*In 1935, Irene Joliot-Curie won the Nobel prize.
In a bid to expand her experience further, in 2009, Aline co-founded Crypto Experts, a start-up that offered consultancy in security and cryptography and developed innovative solutions.
"It was exciting for me because it wasn't just about the technical aspects," she recalls. "We also had to learn about business. For me, it was valuable to be able to launch a start-up and build a business plan."
She spent two years developing Crypto Experts, during which time they filed three patents, before deciding to go back to Gemalto.
Still, she hasn't ruled out a return to the entrepreneurial world: "It was an outstanding experience, and I will maybe do it again in the future."
In the meantime, alongside her cryptography work, she devotes a portion of her time to supporting and inspiring other women in the tech world.
"Last year, through the network, I became involved in a group where we analyzed the statistics for women working in digital security and IT," she says. "We found that there are fewer than there were ten years ago. It seems that a significant number of women who start work in a scientific domain that they have studied leave just three years later."
The next generation
She is also heavily involved in getting women engaged in scientific careers in the first place.
She teaches short courses at the University of Caen every year, engages with young people, and regularly gives career talks to young women at school and university.
"It's hard to explain my job, so, particularly with younger people, I try to teach them the concept of cryptography," she says. "And I try to show them that you can have fun with maths!"
She hopes that winning the Irène Joliot-Curie Prize will also help her show young women what is possible.
Indeed, she says it is already having the desired effect: "Women have said to me: 'Now my daughter can look at you and say, I can do that.'"
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