Dr Mathieu Gravey

Mathieu Gravey obtained his PhD in geostatistics in 2020 from the FGSE after training as a computer engineer.

To advance research in the geosciences, Mathieu Gravey uses cutting-edge remote sensing techniques, some based on Google Earth Engine (for which he is an expert developer), and high-performance computing.

His ability to question ways of thinking and his ease with programming enable him to embark on a wide range of projects today: from bird migration to global landscape monitoring – from the greening of the Alps to bush fires.



What is your current position? Why did you choose this path?

Since March 2023, I'm a junior group leader at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research (ÖAW-IGF). As a researcher, I love to go and explore a field I know nothing about. Attending conferences allows me to discover current issues in major subjects: what's going on today in astronomy, quantum physics, geosciences...? Touching other spheres, getting out of one's office... these are approaches that help to question one's own practices, to think differently.

I like to ask myself questions and stimulate answers that convince me. Taking a step back, questioning our habits and what we've learned, is hard work. Our brains believe in the least effort. I myself sometimes do things without thinking, taking shortcuts, sometimes without realizing it. Questioning these automatisms is what drives me.

How did your job search go? What advice would you give to a PhD student or post-doc preparing for the next stage of their career? What advice have you received yourself?

After UNIL, I first took up a position as assistant professor in geo-environmental data science at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. I accepted this position because it was still the Covid time and it was impossible to know when I would start the postdoc I had obtained at Stanford. However, the research resources (in time and money) were far below my expectations. I was overwhelmed by teaching and supervision, without being able to impose my philosophy. Despite the title assistant professor, it was nothing like a position of the same name at UNIL.

So I applied for my current position in Austria. I thought I wasn't experienced enough for a leading group position. I had only two first-author publications and had defended my thesis only two years before. So my advice to you: Apply! First of all, we don't know exactly what profile the institutes are looking for, or which applications they will receive. Sometimes, the person hired is quite different from the job description. And above all: in a job search, each iteration is a fine-tuning exercise. Applying is also training. When the job of your dreams comes along, you'd better be ready. When I reread my first research statements, I find them weak. It takes time to build the perfect application.

A valuable piece of advice given to me was to focus not only on what we can do, but especially on what only we can do ("do what you can do, but especially what only you can do"). Each of us is unique in his or her background, skills, interests and other specificities, which gives us the potential to achieve things in a unique way. This uniqueness also means less competition, and therefore less stress. Be unique!

What skills did you develop at FGSE that you are currently using?

During my PhD at UNIL with Grégoire Mariéthoz, I was lucky enough to have the freedom to think, experiment and fail. And not simply to be a technician working for the supervisor implementing his ideas, as I saw so often. As a result, when I finished my PhD, I had lots of ideas for postdocs and now for my new position. In addition, I learned the politics of the institute, during my two years on the Conseil de l’IDYST!

What motivated you to come to the FGSE in the first place?

Opportunity! When I started my thesis, I was a computer engineer. Changing fields was very fruitful. For example, whenever I didn't know something about geosciences, I was forgiven – because it's not my field – and as soon as I did a bit of coding, it was like magic. It's a win-win situation. Today, I work in a geosciences institute. So my time at IDYST has undoubtedly influenced my career.

Do you still have any research collaborations with the FGSE?

Yes, I still have a lot of contact with FGSE members and alumni. I really benefited from the UNIL network, both within the institute and the faculty. Hence the importance of the cafeteria! I was also lucky enough to attend a number of conferences and meet some interesting people.

When I first arrived at the Geopolis building, I found it absurd that everyone wasn't "sorted" into groups in the offices. But looking back, I can see that this mix was a very good thing. It forces people to meet each other more. Interesting collaborations can emerge.

And today, what are your career plans and research questions?

My position is that of junior group leader, which means that I'll eventually have my own research group. I'd like to develop subjects that are a little outside the mainstream, even if I do collaborate on "hot topics". I don't want to publish in a hurry, and instead look for the best quality research.

In the long term, one of my ambitions is to develop a system for modelling terrain elevations (a DTM). I'm investigating the possibility of using an alternative technology to improve accuracy and flexibility compared with current methods. I don't know if it'll work, but if it does, it'll be a revolution in terms of energy and money!

I'd also like to encourage creativity and independence among students. Ideally, I'd open a PhD position without a subject. It's essential to find your own subject: you're more motivated if you work on what you love. It's also more interesting for me as a supervisor. If possible, this person should also be able to question what I do and say! I'd also like to advocate quality research. Because of the pressure to publish, we're seeing an increase in the number of studies, but not in their quality. As a result, as a reader, I have neither the time nor the information to find out what was done in a study, or why a particular tool or code was used. For my part, I only have two papers published as first author. My latest thesis chapter is submitted, and has only just been accepted, more than two years after my defence. And that's a good thing; it's evolved so much since then! Fortunately, at the FGSE, doctoral students are not obliged to publish. In the Netherlands, 4 papers (1 per year) are required! The risk is that we produce more and more articles that go everyone's way, based on previous studies and without checking their validity. My philosophy is rather to produce good papers, which don't necessarily go with the wind, but which are solid.

Interview published in September 2023

Suivez nous: