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Meet Michael Lathuillière, Data Scientist

Originally from France, Michael began his career making ink for a printing company in Canada. When the Kyoto Protocol came into effect, he realized he could make a bigger impact on the world – so he shifted his interests to environmental science, supply chains, and water footprinting. Now he works at SEI, tackling deforestation with the Trase supply chain transparency platform.

Published on 2 October 2019
Michael Lathuillière

Michael Lathuillière at SEI Headquarters. Photo: Mischa Andrews / SEI.

What did you do before you joined SEI?

I have a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada. After graduating in 2002, I worked as a chemist for six years, developing ink formulations for a digital printing company.

I went back to UBC to do a Master of Science in 2009 to study soybean deforestation in Brazil and water use for agricultural production. Then, in 2013, I began a PhD at the same university after having spent a year studying the carbon cycle in the Brazilian Pantanal.

My background is in eco-hydrology, applied to water footprinting and commodity supply chains. I am mainly interested in water resources and how deforestation affects the water cycle in South America, particularly the link between deforestation and rainfall.

What shifted your interest away from being a chemist?

I was a chemist right when the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005 and felt that I could apply my knowledge in a more impactful way.

So I started a long career shift, which brought me to SEI last year. Deep down I am still a very passionate chemist, but I now apply this knowledge at a different scale, while still feeding on my experience in industrial processes to understand environmental impacts of consumption.

Michael Lathuillière standing in a sunny crop field in Brazil.

Michael in the field to measure water use for crops at Capuaba farm, Mato Grosso, Brazil (before joining SEI). Photo: Michael Lathuillière.

How did you hear about SEI and Trase?

All the key eco-hydrology literature I read during my master’s was authored by former SEI director, Johan Rockström, and colleagues. My work since then has built on a lot of research developed at SEI.

As for Trase: my PhD research involved how to highlight deforestation impacts of soybean production to consumers. Trase explicitly shows connection between producers and consumers which was an important missing piece of the puzzle of my research. Trase felt like a natural fit considering my prior research interests and deep passion for understanding commodity supply chains.

What was it like moving from Canada to Sweden after your PhD?

I actually moved from Brazil where I did fieldwork for my PhD research.

There was quite some adjustment for me to move from Canada to Brazil, and now from Brazil to Sweden. Language, climate, and the overall day-to-day are very different from one country to the next. Overall, the transition happened smoothly. The winters in Stockholm aren’t as cold as in some parts of Canada. I’m originally from France, so it’s really nice to be back in Europe, closer to my family.

What do you do at SEI?

I’m a Data Scientist for Trase and am also part of the Trase management team.

Trase is a platform that houses an ever-increasing database to map agricultural commodity supply chains and link these supply chains to tropical deforestation. Datasets have to be prepared and checked before publication on the Trase website. My day-to-day consists of working closely with the team to go through all datasets, managing the publication process, and developing new supply chain maps.

For instance, I am currently working on the Argentinian soy supply chain, which we expect to release by the end of the year. This work will be followed by the publication of Argentinian corn, as well as other countries and commodities led by colleagues (including Brazilian pork, chicken, and Indonesian palm oil).

A screenshot of a supply chain, mapping how Brazilian soy flows from its many producers to consumers in China, Brazil, and elsewhere in the world.

A screenshot from Trase, showing how Brazilian soy flows from producers to consumers. Website visitors can drill down to see the supply chain information most relevant to them. Source: Trase.

Why is this work important?

With Trase, we’re now able to show connections between commodity production and consumption centres better than ever before. For instance, we can connect a Brazilian municipality that produces soybean to a country of export, and link this production to deforestation. This connection is shown very explicitly on our website, together with the company involved in the trade. The platform provides information on deforestation risk in supply chains and can help highlight priority areas for action and engagement.

What would you have liked to have known about SEI before you applied for a job here?

SEI is a lot more open and diverse than I imagined, with a lot more implementation and communication work as well. What seems to be more important at SEI are traits like commitment, passion, knowledge, experience, and creativity. You see all of these in people every day, which is extremely rewarding and makes SEI a wonderful and exciting place to work.

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