2020 Alumni Awards and Honoris Causa Doctorate
Every year, EPFL gives out Alumni Awards to two former students who have had outstanding careers. The 2020 winners were Robert Mardini, Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Leila Schwery-Bou-Diab, Vice-President Value Chain Management at Janssen (a Johnson & Johnson company). The School also awarded an Honoris Causa degree to Harvard University professor Cynthia Dwork.
2020 Alumni Awards
Director General – International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Graduated in Civil Engineering in 1996 at EPFL
The ICRC has always been part of Mardini’s life, starting in his childhood during the civil war in Lebanon. In 1996, when he was about to complete his Master’s degree in civil engineering at EPFL, he saw an ICRC booth at the Forum EPFL job fair. He applied for the job, and was selected to join the ICRC’s water and habitat team in the field. Mardini’s first assignment was in Rwanda in 1997, just a few years after the genocide, his second was in Iraq from 1998.
« EPFL is where I learned how to think analytically and approach problems from different angles. One my professors – François Frey – told us: ‘I’m here to teach you how to break problems down and find solutions’. That statement has become one of my mottos. »
Mardini steadily moved up the ranks at the ICRC, becoming Regional Director for the Near and Middle East in 2012 – in the middle of the Arab Spring – and Head of the ICRC Delegation to the United Nations in New York in 2018. He took over as Director General in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic; his first day on the job, 17 March 2020, was also the first day of Switzerland’s partial lockdown. “The pandemic comes on top of many other crises that the ICRC is dealing with, including armed conflicts and climate change,” he says. Those armed conflicts have not abated despite the pandemic, meaning COVID-19 is putting already vulnerable people even more at risk.
The technical skills that Mardini learned at EPFL will be essential. “EPFL is where I learned how to think analytically and approach problems from different angles. One my professors – François Frey – told us: ‘I’m here to teach you how to break problems down and find solutions’. That statement has become one of my mottos”.
Vice-President Value Chain Management at Janssen (Johnson & Johnson)
Graduated in Chemistry and chemical engineering en 1999 at EPFL
With a Lebanese father and a Swiss-German mother, it’s not surprising that one of Schwery-Bou-Diab’s core values is diversity. It’s also a value she shares with EPFL, whose community is made up of people from an array of countries and cultures. “I have great memories from my time at EPFL. We each had a different background and were all thrown together in this new environment, so we learned to help each other out. I soon felt right at home,” she says.
When she graduated in 2000, she took a job with a pharma consulting firm and three years later she began working directly for a pharmaceutical company – Novartis – as a process chemist. In 2005 the company appointed her head of production at a manufacturing site in Ireland, in charge of some 120 people. This position also marked the first of a series of high-level positions abroad. After transferring from Ireland to Germany in 2009, she moved to the US in 2015 where she worked as Vice President of Global Quality for Elanco, a pharmaceutical firm that makes veterinary drugs.
Schwery-Bou-Diab returned to Switzerland in 2019. She now works as Vice President of Value Chain Management for Janssen, a pharmaceutical business owned by Johnson & Johnson. In this role she oversees the entire Janssen product line-up, from development to marketing, and makes strategic decisions regarding the product portfolio. Gender equality is an issue Schwery-Bou-Diab feels strongly about. She has taken part in several mentoring programs and also spoke at EPFL’s International Women’s Day event in 2019.
2020 Honoris Causa Doctorate
The 2020 Honoris Causa degree went to Cynthia Dwork, a US computer scientist and professor at Harvard University. The degree ceremony has been postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.