Developing bioprocesses to purify contaminated water: Francesca Casagli wins a L'Oréal-UNESCO 2022 Grant

Changed on 04/11/2022
Each year, the L'Oréal-Unesco awards recognize exceptional young researchers. Francesca Casagli, a junior researcher in the Biocore team, a joint project-team between the Inria centre at Université Côte d'Azur, INRAE and the Oceanographic Laboratory of Villefranche sur mer (LOV), is one of the 35 winners of the Young Talent Award "For Women in Science", which aims to promote the place of women in science.

Modeling artificial ecosystems

The work of Francesca Casagli, an environmental engineer and modeler, has led her to model artificial ecosystems, composed of mixed consortia of microalgae and bacteria, for the purification of contaminated water and the recovery of the chemical energy they contain. The aim is to create a hybrid mathematical model that is sufficiently accurate to design new bioprocesses capable of not only purifying water contaminated by anthropogenic waste but also to minimize the production of toxic gases and greenhouse effect, such as carbon dioxide, ammonia and nitrous oxide. What is at stake? Nothing less than finding solutions that can be applied on an industrial scale to reduce some of the causes of the current climate change.

Contributing to the preservation of water resources

Water is an essential resource for life and it is essential to recycle it efficiently. More than 50 m3 per year of wastewater is produced on average by Europeans and managing its sanitation and reintroduction into the environment, while minimizing the negative impacts on natural ecosystems and human health, is a major challenge. Much of our waste ends up in the atmosphere in the form of harmful gases and greenhouse gases.

I want to make a contribution to the preservation of the planet for future generations, she explains.

In addition, recycling energy, nitrogen and phosphorus has become one of the main objectives of wastewater treatment systems. Therefore, a next-generation approach to operational efficiency is of utmost importance in water resource recovery facilities (WRFs). Unfortunately, despite the progress made over the past decades, the use of advanced management strategies guided by numerical models is still very limited.

Greater visibility for young researchers

It is this work that has earned the young scientist a place among this year's winners of the France L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Grants.

"This "Young Talent" program is an excellent opportunity to give visibility to young women and the research projects they are working on. It is also a great recognition of their work and a great encouragement to continue, while striving to be an example for future generations of women, so that there are more and more examples of women who have chosen to make a career in scientific research and have obtained excellent results", explains Francesca Casagli with enthusiasm.

An early scientific vocation for environmental engineering

As early as her high school years, her math and physics teacher got her interested in scientific subjects.  Driven by a strong curiosity for these subjects, she decided to enroll in the engineering school in Florence. In love with nature, our planet, and concerned about climate change and man-made environmental problems, she then turned to a career as an environmental engineer and more specifically to the purification systems of contaminated water.

She then started a PhD in environmental and infrastructure engineering at the Politecnico di Milano, to continue her research. She developed a mathematical model, which allowed to describe in detail the interactions between microalgae and bacteria in the treatment of contaminated water, allowing to evaluate the efficiency of the system and the production of microalgae in different operating conditions and season, while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently a junior researcher fellow at Sophia Antipolis, within the Biocore project-team, her work focuses on the mathematical modeling of bioprocesses in order to optimize them by hybridizing traditional modeling approaches with other approaches from the field of artificial intelligence such as neural networks. Throughout her career, she has had the opportunity to work with extremely competent and passionate scientists who have passed on not only their knowledge, but also their passion and dedication to research and science. "In particular my thesis supervisor during my PhD," she emphasizes, "an incredible female researcher and an example for me."

Woman of science

The world of scientific research needs talented women, "who don't live with the idea that they have to choose between a career and a family." It's a very challenging job, one that "constantly challenges you, where you're always learning, constantly setting new, better and more ambitious goals. It's also a very satisfying job, because you feel like you're really doing something useful for the community, the planet and future generations. Young women should feel free and proud to pursue a career in science and make their valuable contributions to the world of scientific research."

Committed citizen

Francesca Casagli intends to continue her research project by involving Master's, PhD’s and post-doctoral students of different nationalities, in order to promote scientific exchanges between different countries. She also wishes to participate more actively in scientific dissemination, in order to raise awareness of environmental issues and climate change among all generations. "These issues are a huge problem that affects everyone, not just the researchers who devote their lives to working on them." A modern and committed citizen she adds, "I think it is crucial that everyone plays their part and that it is a duty for researchers like me who work on this subject to take the first step."

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Francesca Casagli

Inria Junior researcher

Centre Inria d'Université Côte d'Azur - 2004, route des Lucioles , 06560 Valbonne Sophia Antipolis