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The secrets of a future actor

A doctoral candidate in agronomy working with INRA in Paris, Nicolas Urruty is studying wheat production systems in order to identify the most robust in dealing with climatic and biotic changes. From being a research engineer to becoming a future leader, what drives him is the quest for a successful outcome: “producing more and better with less.”

Nicolas Urruty, a doctoral candidate working at INRA Paris. © INRA
By Julie Cheriguene, translated by Vicky Hawken
Updated on 12/15/2016
Published on 09/05/2016

“Farming systems are undergoing major change. Having been born in a rural area, I wanted to better understand that world”, is the simple explanation given by Nicolas Urruty when discussing his choice of the agricultural sciences. Nevertheless, he imagines an original scenario for his career path, inspired by the key idea of “participating in addressing the challenges of the future”.

On the stage of arable crops

Research actor and scientific mediator

The plot started in the Gers region with a Technology University Diploma (DUT) in biological engineering.  He then joined the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences (ENSAT) in Toulouse and qualified as an agricultural engineer in 2012 after work experience at Arvalis - Institut du Végétal. “By working on the issue of no-till farming, I was able to meet some innovative farmers who were testing alternatives to traditional practices.”
Thus qualified, he was recruited by INRA's Scientific Directorate for Agriculture to work on the study of high performance agriculture (1) that was carried out in 2014 for the Commissariat-General for Strategy and Foresight (CGSP). “After my one-year fixed-term contract, my two bosses, Hervé Guyomard and Christian Huyghe, suggested I start a PhD thesis”.  The subject is improving the robustness of soft wheat production systems in the context of climatic and disease risks.  Co-funded with Agrosolutions, a subsidiary of the InVivo group which heads a network of French agricultural cooperatives, he is exploiting the results of surveys conducted in more than 300 French farms to identify levers for improvement.  “My results are tending towards a greater flexibility of management systems. Farmers who diversify the wheat varieties they grow see more stable yields.”
INRA's head office in Paris is an unusual setting for this young scientist: “there is no research team in the strict sense of the term, and so not the same intellectual stimulation when it comes to writing papers.”  To develop links with research, he discusses his ideas with doctoral candidates in other INRA centres.  It was during a discussion meeting that he heard about the competition on “My thesis in 180 seconds”.  “Having enjoyed a bit of acting, I liked the idea of going on the stage!”  But what attracted him above all was the leading role of scientific mediator offered by this competition.

In the spotlight

This competition does not provide any opportunities for improvisation.  During the university, regional and then national finals, it was necessary to compress everything into a tightly scripted, three minute monologue. Nicolas Urruty explains: “you must try not to lapse too much into scientific jargon and try to talk to a really wide audience. It's fun, but it takes over your life!”.  But the investment has been worth it because he is now one of the three French representatives in the international final, and this success means that in June 2016 he was invited to the Prime Minister's residence in Paris, Hôtel Matignon, with all the other national finalists.
Research at the service of farmers, and more generally our fellow citizens, is what gives a sense to his work: “we need to explain what the process of consumption implies”.  This awareness, which developed very early, now underpins his daily efforts.  He splits his time and skills between different areas: technical analysis first of all, then restitution of the results in the field. “The diversity of varieties, costs, and technical complexity are the obstacles encountered by farmers when trying to change their cropping systems.  But it is a path that must be followed, supported by advice and training.”
As for his future, he has some ideas on how he would like to work: “with regional authorities, in nature reserves or in collaboration with cooperatives, I haven't yet decided!”  The aim is to ensure the dual technical and scientific performance of sustainable farming systems.

(1) Nicolas Urruty is working in particular on volumes 2 and 3 which analyse levers for change that will enable an improvement in the economic and environmental performance of French farms.

a brief CV

  • 26 years old
  • 2007: Scientific baccalauréat (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, 64)
  • 2007 - 2009: Technology University Diploma in Biological Engineering (option agronomy) (Gers, 32)
  • 2009 – 2012: School of Agricultural and Life Sciences (INP-ENSAT) in Toulouse (Haute-Garonne, 31)
  • 2014 – 2017: PhD in agronomy – Université de Poitiers-Gay Lussac (Vienne, 86)
  • Centres of interest: botany, photography, theatre, hiking, travel
Concours « Ma thèse en 180 secondes ». © INRA

"My thesis in 180 seconds": on the podium of the international final

On 31 May 2016, his three-minute “psychoanalysis” convinced the jury of the “My thesis in 180 seconds” national competition to award him third prize. His win meant that he moved on to the international finals, held on September 29 in Morocco.

> Flashback on his 180 seconds

At the international final with twenty PhD students from ten French-speaking countries, the jury awarded Nicolas Urruty third prize.

> Find out more