PSL Master’s Degrees: Research and education on behalf of a more sustainable world


Nearly half of Université PSL laboratories are working on projects that focus directly on sustainable development issues. It’s a major topic of interest for students and one they can learn about through a wide range of programs in every discipline and at every level. We talk with three instructors and research professors working in PSL laboratories and Master’s degree programs, and with a young ESPCI Paris–PSL alumnus who’s now an entrepreneur, to find out more about that interdisciplinary instruction informed by current research.

Masters DD

An interview with:

  • Hélène Blanchoud, environmental chemist, lecturer and Associate Director of the METIS laboratory, EPHE–PSL
  • Laurent Bopp, climatologist and oceanographer, Research Director at the CNRS and Director of the Geosciences Department at ENS–PSL
  • Stéphanie Monjon, an economist at the Dauphine Economics Laboratory and Environmental Responsibility advisor at Université Paris Dauphine–PSL
  • Edouard Duliège, CTO and co-founder of Kapsera, a start-up established at ESPCI Paris–PSL

PSL: In your role as a climatologist, economist, physicist, chemist or entrepreneur, can you tell us in a nutshell why you feel it’s important to tackle sustainable development from an interdisciplinary standpoint?

The specialists of the future will be those who can communicate across those disciplinary barriers, which will eventually, gradually crumble.

Laurent Bopp: The science of climate change is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Any study of how the climate system operates calls for a whole range of scientific disciplines, including physics, chemistry, biology, geology, information science, mathematics and more. Physicists study the dynamics of atmospheric and oceanic flows and energy transfer in earth system science; chemists look at cycles of atmospheric compounds that act as greenhouse gases; biologists try to understand the role of ecosystems in climate regulation; information scientists and mathematicians play a key role in developing digital tools for simulating how the climate might evolve in response to anthropogenic emissions. But the study of climate change requires much broader interactions, particularly with specialists in the humanities and social sciences. Greenhouse gas emissions depend primarily on economic activity and human behavior, and the impact of climate change is being felt and will continue to be felt in the way societies operate. The specialists of the future will be those who can communicate across those disciplinary barriers, which will eventually, gradually crumble.

Stéphanie Monjon: Whether you’re an economist, a climatologist or a chemist, the study of sustainable development requires that you go beyond the silo mentalities that are still far too common, even in our own institutions, especially at the doctoral level. Sustainable development requires that we evaluate the full consequences of an activity, policy or technology. We need to be able to identify not just the environmental consequences but the social consequences as well. One discipline alone can only illuminate part of that impact.

Hélène Blanchoud: I agree completely. In environmental chemistry, in the Anthropocene (or “the human era”), it’s no longer possible to study chemical processes without considering the impact of humans. Our primary concerns are the fate and effects of contaminants in ecosystems. So we have to know the current and past sources of those contaminants in order to determine how they’re disseminated into the environment. For example, we can explain the presence of pesticides in groundwater by past uses that we need to quantify in order to validate models for transfer to the watershed scale. With that in mind, agronomists, modelers and chemists all work together to estimate how long those substances persist in the watershed. The PIREN Seine research program is a perfect example of interdisciplinary research. That program, which is funded by regional organizations and the CNRS, is designed to bring together researchers from different disciplines (22 teams, primarily in Greater Paris) to study a single topic: the Seine River. Their goal is to gain a comprehensive perspective on the river basin and the human communities that revolve around it, so as to understand and model its ecological and biogeochemical workings. That research is helping to build a resilient social ecosystem.

Breakthrough innovations often emerge from the interface between disciplines. An interdisciplinary approach is essential for addressing the challenges of sustainable development.

Édouard Duliège: From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I think it’s essential to remember that breakthrough innovations often emerge from the interface between disciplines. So an interdisciplinary approach is essential for addressing the challenges of sustainable development. It’s critical that students, PhDs and young researchers have access to an education that instills an interdisciplinary mindset, so that over time they can devise breakthrough innovations that will make a difference.

The “Energy, Finance, Carbon” Track of the Economics and Finance Master’s Degree

The “Energy, Finance, Carbon” program looks at ongoing changes in the energy sector and the emerging needs of industrial and institutional organizations in the sector. The program trains young economists who can develop an operational framework for the industrial and financial strategies of major players in the world of energy and the environment, who are now having to respond to the convergence of energy, finance and carbon.
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PSL: How can students in the humanities and social sciences – economics, for example – add to their knowledge of environmental chemistry?

Hélène Blanchoud: Human societies are interdependent with our environment. Environmental chemistry is an especially important field for an economist that wants to work toward a sustainable world. As the population becomes more concentrated in megacities and land is cultivated more intensively, we become vulnerable to chemical risks: pesticides, hydrocarbons, medicines, parabens and so on – synthesized molecules that are sold and disseminated into our air, water and soil. We still know very little about their impact on human health and ecosystems, and the current research is being driven by a variety of objectives: finding alternatives to the use of chemicals, evaluating risks so we can refine our regulations accordingly, demonstrating the value of preserving our natural resources and the tools we use to do that. At the METIS Joint Research Unit, we’re working to understand how micropollutants are transferred and to identify their impact on aquatic ecosystems. As we see new chemicals coming to market that are increasingly complex to analyze, we need to work closely with water stakeholders to think about changes to the E.U.’s regulatory framework. Our teaching as part of the Life Sciences Master’s program and the Master’s in Earth and Planetary Science, Environment reflect that interdisciplinary research.

Master’s Degree in Earth and Planetary Science, Environment

This Master’s degree program is designed to address the need to train a new generation of geoscientists who can quantitatively evaluate the operations and development of System Earth, a complex system of solid and fluid containers that interact across a range of temporal and spatial scales. Specifically, scientists are seeking fundamental knowledge about how matter and energy are exchanged and interface between those containers. In addition, they hope to address critical societal challenges ranging from natural hazards (earthquakes, flooding, cyclones, space weather) to climate change, resources (water, energy, minerals) and pollution of our soil, water and atmosphere.
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PSL: What do you think are the most important attributes for students of sustainable development?

Stéphanie Monjon: Curiosity is an important character trait. Students who are curious can grasp the full range of issues posed by a business or a policy. Of course, they also need to be rigorous. There’s a wealth of resources available for learning about every discipline. UVED, the Virtual University for the Environment and Sustainable Development, is one example, but there are plenty of others. Finding, reading and listening to those resources is a good way to start. Also, you shouldn’t hesitate to go meet with professors, experts and researchers from other disciplines. PSL is an important place for that, given the wide range of knowledge that’s generated here. The lectures and seminars held in the various schools are extremely valuable forums for learning and talking to others. That’s a real asset for PSL students.

Édouard Duliège: I agree with Stéphanie about curiosity and rigor, and also the wide array of resources available online. I think it’s important to emphasize that a curious student should take the time to read books, reflect, absorb new knowledge and get some perspective on it. That’s in addition to the time you spend talking to other people at seminars, lectures or even by visiting laboratories. There too, Stéphanie’s right to emphasize how lucky PSL students are that they have access to an exceptionally broad range of first-rate faculty members at PSL. I highly recommend that students visit labs that focus on areas they’re interested in. That opens up unexpected doors, plus it’s a good opportunity to talk with enthusiastic, inspiring people.

Executive Education: Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development and Organizations

This Master’s program is designed for students who have at least three to five years of professional experience and are interested in pursuing a career path that focuses wholly or in part on sustainable development. Sustainability issues have become essential to the strategy of numerous organizations, including businesses, NGOs, regional and national governments and global institutions.
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A Master’s degree in Sustainable Development is also offered for full-time students as part of the International Affairs and Development program.

PSL: In your view, how and why should students receive an education that’s informed by ongoing research?

Laurent Bopp: On the subject of climate, the research is constantly evolving. The major principles of physics that explain the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change have been known since the 19th century, but we’ve made dizzying progress in just the past few years. As a result, we’re able to refine our projections regarding the impact of climate change based on the various scenarios for greenhouse-gas emissions, but we can also consider solutions we could adopt for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Because of the rapid pace of change, it’s absolutely essential that research and instruction on climate issues be closely intertwined. Students in the Earth and Planetary Science, Environment (STePE) Master’s program are fully integrated into the research teams. Some courses are built around bibliographical research based on recent publications, and we’re setting up research projects that are woven through the entire Master’s program and tutored by researchers at PSL schools. In addition, students do a five-month internship with a research team abroad at the end of their first year in the program.

Stéphanie Monjon: The assessment reports produced by the IPCC offer proof that we’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what we know.
In economics it’s also true that a lot of research focuses on policy tools for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or promoting renewable energy. Policies for encouraging energy efficiency are taking on greater importance as well. Our students are future decision-makers in both the public and private realms. What with climate change and biodiversity issues, not to mention globalization, they will need to make those decisions in an increasingly complex world. The ability to capitalize on scientific research, including in the humanities and social sciences, can help us better understand the possible futures we face and will be an invaluable tool for decision-making. As part of the Master’s degree in International Affairs and Development, and particularly the students in the Sustainable Development track, we’re working on recent research papers in environmental and health economics to gain greater insight into the links between globalization and the environment.

In the major environmental challenges unit of the Life Sciences Master’s program, students themselves are putting their projects together with help from a researcher or a professional

Hélène Blanchoud: Climate change is obviously a topic of major concern. However, we often only think about its consequences in terms of hotter temperatures or rising seawaters. Our teaching draws on recent research to yield a better understanding of the determinism of past actions so we can anticipate future actions. The models that have been developed for simulating changes in future contamination based on either laissez-faire policies, on the one hand, or forceful government action on the other, have revealed gaps in our ability to model the system in all its complexity. The students we’re teaching are becoming aware of that. We invite speakers from the private sector to our classrooms so that students can get an idea of the constraints facing each region. In the major environmental challenges unit of the Life Sciences Master’s program, students themselves are putting their projects together with help from a researcher or a professional, depending on whether they want to pursue a doctorate. That gives them an opportunity to reflect on their career plans, but they also get a broader perspective on the issues they’ll be confronting. It’s possible that we need to start now with rethinking our social ecosystem, but to do that we need young people who are ready for that kind of paradigm shift. The problem lies with undergraduate training that is too focused on specific disciplines. The new Bachelor’s degree program in sustainability sciences that PSL established this year will be an ideal way to respond to current expectations.

Édouard Duliège: We need to do it because it’s the most exciting way to do it! Tutorials have been around for a long time at ESPCI Paris–PSL, and I think they’re an excellent approach. Four students work together on an assignment, and then discuss the results with a researcher. That lets students take the time to brainstorm ideas and work as a group. Their discussion with the researcher represents a very interactive way of learning that’s rooted in current research. It’s often an opportunity to advance the discussion well beyond the topic at hand in the tutorial.

Master’s Degree in Life Sciences

This interdisciplinary Master’s degree equips a new generation of scientists, engineers and physicians to tackle emerging issues in the fields of contemporary biology, ecology and the environmental sciences.
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PSL: We’re seeing a growing number of career paths that focus specifically on sustainable development and not just the sciences. Do you think it’s important for PSL Master’s programs to train students for careers in sustainable development? If so, can you give us some examples?

To ensure the success of a start-up such as Kaspera, we need people who are comfortable moving between microfluidics, materials science and processes; formulations, analytical sciences and microbiology; formulations and agronomy.

Laurent Bopp: Absolutely! Once they complete their Master’s, the vast majority of our students decide to pursue a PhD in a research laboratory. Many of them will aim for a career in academia. But a growing number of them are attracted by other fields that play a more direct role in helping us implement solutions for sustainable development concerns. We make it our mission to train future decision-makers and future environmental “practitioners” as well. The options available in our curriculum give our students multiple avenues for taking that path. In just the past few years we’ve included modules in economics, social science and political science, plus internships at government ministries or in the field with NGOs.

Édouard Duliège: Yes, for sure, and PSL is very well positioned to train students for careers in sustainable development, which are going to require a multidisciplinary education. There’s no shortage of career opportunities: the urban development and public works sector, which is embracing new materials and more sustainable urban planning; developing cleaner forms of transportation and more sustainable management of natural resources; relocating manufacturing; capitalizing on the potential of artificial intelligence, and more. To give you a very specific example, the innovation that Kapsera is bringing to the market involves a formulation process for sustainable farming, based on microfluidic encapsulation technology. To ensure its success, we need people who are comfortable moving between microfluidics, materials science and processes; formulations, analytical sciences and microbiology; formulations and agronomy – plus business people who have a reasonably good understanding of the various facets of the technology and its potential. Forty percent of our workforce holds a PhD. In my view, that’s an ideal illustration of how important it is to offer an interdisciplinary education at the Master’s level and beyond.