Ursula Vaucher

Ursula is originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the U.S. and went to Williams, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, graduating in 1984 as a political science major specializing in international relations. At that stage, she had great ambitions to work in some capacity in politics but became a bit disillusioned after spending a summer as an intern for her congressman in Washington DC.  This gave her a chance to see politics from the inside out. “You always hear about politics being dirty and I can attest to the fact that politics is dirty,” she said. It was nonetheless a great experience. Still, she wasn’t sure which direction to go after her studies. She thought about grad school and concentrate in international relations but, a bit burned out by the rigours of scholarship, she entered a management training program in a bank on Wall St. in New York. She has stayed in finance ever since. Mostly recently at Philip Morris, she decided to make a big change and came to EPFL in 2007. She was the financial officer for the NCCR Quantum Photonics from 2007 through 2013 and served as the Coordinator of National Funding Group in the Research Office from 2013 through 2016. She has been MARVEL’s financial officer since 2016 and Program manager of the Equipment & Centers Mgt. Office since 2016. She is still passionate about politics and very engrossed with what’s going on, particularly in the U.S. She enjoys sports including walking and yoga and also likes to read.  


Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL

The biggest challenge facing women in the workplace is...

I think there are quite a few! The first thing that comes to mind is just to be taken seriously, that we’re not a token. Especially in an institution like EPFL, because of the area of focalization, there are more men, and sometimes you hear “well, we need a woman, it would be nice to have a woman.” Okay, yes, it’s nice to have a woman, but for the right reasons. Not just because “we need a woman.” I find that a bit frustrating. I guess also just in my personal experience, being in finance, which, at the time was a male-dominated environment, we were almost looked upon as taking a man’s place. At a former employer, when I first decided to have a child, the first reaction was “well I know you’re not going to come back after you have your child.” I asked why not and was told that I was supposed to be a stay-at-home mom and be focused in raising my child. That way my job could go to a man who wouldn’t have these issues to deal with. I was a bit angered by that. Also, I kind of feel that being a woman of color, it’s kind of a two-for-one. Okay, we have a woman and we have a minority, so to speak. Not so much here in Switzerland, more in the U.S. and I have to ask myself okay am I here in this position because I’m a woman? Because I’m African-American? Both? Or am I in this position because I really am qualified? But with time, we’re hopefully getting past that, but there’s a way to go. There are a couple of issues linked to being a woman then, but I think just to be taken seriously and be valued for our capabilities is still a challenge sometimes.   

I chose to work in an academic environment because ...

At the time, I was really tired with the whole corporate environment.  I’d been in banking and then working for a big American conglomerate, and I just wanted to do something very different. I also wanted to find a better life-work balance. I’d always been interested in EPFL, knew it was a great academic institution and I was lucky enough to find a position in finance here. I really enjoy being in this type of environment…it’s very innovative, there’s a lot of creativity and you’re having a positive impact on the future. There’s teaching, there’s research, it’s very forward-thinking…it’s an environment that really “does good.”  

If I weren't in my current job, I would be... 

If I were in the U.S., even though I’m still disillusioned a bit by politics, I think I would work in the political arena in some capacity, maybe as a political consultant or a campaign strategist. I’m still passionate about politics and I think it would be interesting to be involved in that arena. Here in Switzerland, I’m not sure. I am really happy with what I’m doing now.

My greatest achievement so far is... 

It’s going to sound a little corny, but really I’d say that raising my daughter is my biggest achievement at this point. It’s not easy raising children in this day and age. When I found out that I was going to have a child, at first I wanted a boy, I was really afraid to have a daughter because of the difficulties of being a woman.  I mean, it’s great being a woman, but sometimes there are difficulties you face professionally and so on. But then, when Emilie was born, I was so proud to have a daughter. I feel it’s so important to instil in her confidence, to encourage her to believe in who she is, to not hold back, to pursue her passions and interests. She should know that she has a place in this world and that she can make a difference, to be strong but compassionate, just take advantage of all that comes her way. I think she’s heading in the right direction and I’m really proud of her.