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 very happy," 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. She wasn't just excited for herself, but also for Gemalto, where she is Advanced Cryptography Manager, and for the entire field she works in.
"This award is good for the cryptography community," she says. "The awards cover the full range of scientific disciplines, so for one to be awarded to a cryptographer is very pleasing."
Research and development
The Irène Joliot-Curie Prize doesn't recognize a specific project; it was awarded on the basis of 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 PhD 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 Gemalto because it was a good opportunity for me to get experience in a commercial company. I could manage research activities and continue to publish academic papers, but 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 Gemalto is white box cryptography, a method of protecting cryptographic keys in software applications. She is also researching applications of blockchain, as well as even more complex fields such as homomorphic encryption and quantum cryptography.
All of these areas of research 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 a bid to expand her experience further, in 2009 Aline co-founded Crypto Experts, a start-up that offered consultancy in security and cryptography, as well as developing innovative solutions. "It was very interesting 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, but she hasn't ruled out a return to the entrepreneurial world: "It was a really good 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. For example, she is a member of the Gemalto Connected Women network, which shares knowledge and experience among female employees of the company, as well as tackling wider issues concerning women and technology.
"Last year, through the network, I became involved in another 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 10 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. It's important not to lose women who study science and technology when they are trying to start their careers in these industries, and this is something we need to address."
The next generation
She is also heavily involved in getting women involved in scientific careers in the first place. She teaches short courses at the University of Caen every year, engages with young people who come to Gemalto on internships, 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 to 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'."