Portrait | Astrid Tomzcak
One sentence comes up at some point in the conversation – and actually she wouldn’t even have had needed to say it. Because anyone who listens to Aimée Zermatten becomes a witness to a life story that makes it clear: this story-teller is always looking for new challenges, intellectually and physically. The sentence is: “I need variety.”
It’s quite possible that she acquired this urge for variety and stimulation when still in her cradle. The house of her grandfather – the writer Maurice Zermatten – used to see a succession of authors coming in and out, some quite renowned, others less so. In the middle of them all was Aimée, who had no idea whom she was dealing with and who unselfconsciously sought to have conversations. “I’m aware that I didn’t have an ordinary childhood,” says the Valaisanne. What she doesn’t say is that this probably also involves a conscious or unconscious feeling of obligation. The obligation not to be satisfied with the minimum – and to work for society. She always had her parents in mind as she moved forward: “They took care of people who were experiencing difficulties at some point in their lives. I, on the other hand, have been very fortunate in life.” Her mother worked in a counselling and meeting centre that supports the relationship between a child and the parent from whom he/she is separated. Her father is a children’s rights expert, was a juvenile court judge in Valais and the first Swiss member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which he later also chaired. Aimée Zermatten did an internship with him. “He inspired me very much,” she says.
“I’m aware that I didn’t have an ordinary childhood.”
This internship opened her eyes to human rights, to vulnerable people – and probably also set the course for her law studies. Because even though it may look like this in retrospect: this path was not charted out in advance. Aimée Zermatten has multifaceted interests and had considered studying French literature, religious studies or history of art, perhaps so as to become a teacher or journalist later on. As a teenager she worked with great enthusiasm at a Valais radio station, and at the age of 18 she wrote a play together with a girlfriend, which even won a prize. “I like writing”, she says, “but I thought to myself: I can write any time.” On the other hand, one can hardly pursue law as a hobby. So, she studied law.
The 36-year-old is taking a rather unusual path as a young academic. She works at the Federal Office of Justice and is doing a doctorate at the University of Fribourg. She is writing her dissertation on sex offenders. Of all subjects. That’s another challenge about which she occasionally meets with people shaking their heads or embarrassment. But Aimée Zermatten doesn’t let that throw her off course. “The cases I study are often horrendous,” she says. “But I have a desire to do something relevant. What preoccupies me is the question of how we can re-integrate these people into society.” She says this with an urgency that conveys a clear message: when Aimée Zermatten tackles something, she doesn’t let go. There it is again: this urge to push back the limits, to break new ground.
“I have a desire to do something relevant.“
So the Swiss Young Academy is the right place for her, with her interdisciplinary interests: “I have really found friends here”, she says, almost gushing. “People with innovative ideas. The Swiss Young Academy is even better than I would have thought. There’s a good atmosphere, no competition.” She has found her peers there: people who are driven by a thirst for knowledge, but also by the urge to surpass themselves. Aimée Zermatten seeks this challenge in trail running or on ski tours in the Valais mountains, for example. “I need that. It calms me down”, she says.
People like Aimée Zermatten, full of drive and talent, are often described as high-flyers. It’s easy to forget how strenuous such a life is. “I always wanted to try everything out,” says Aimée Zermatten. Today, she practises yoga and meditation to calm down, seeks balance in cooking and travelling, or by spending time with friends. “It helps to meet people who think like me,” she says. Like at the Swiss Young Academy, whose work is really close to her heart: “For me, it’s important that the Swiss Young Academy continues to exist in the future, that it admits new members who take our ideas further.” She is particularly concerned about the situation of the non-professorial scientific staff: “I hear a lot of serious and sad stories there”, she says. “As the Young Academy, we can think and act innovatively there.”
“I always wanted to try everything out.”
In 2021, Aimée Zermatten was a co-speaker for the project “The Future of Human Rights”, whose aim was to analyse and demonstrate in an original way the connection between human rights issues and current and possible future challenges in the fields of art, health, climate change and digitalisation. “I enjoyed that very much,” says the lawyer. Last year, as part of the “Fostering Transdisciplinary Collaborations for Change” project, she co-organized a retreat to discuss ideas for future interdisciplinary projects “We got to know each other better and laughed a lot.” She is currently thinking with other members about launching a podcast - to inspire young people on this channel to discover science as a means of contributing to the well-being of society.
And where does she see her future? “I’m not making any plans. I hadn’t planned to end up in the correctional system either.” Then she adds, "I’d like to be somewhere where I'm happy and intellectually challenged in both my personal and working lives.” For now, she feels comfortable in Switzerland. “I like the multilingualism of our country, that’s a great asset.” One thing is clear to her: “I need a lot of freedom.” Whether she finds it in an academic career, in the administration or in running a wine bar – who knows. “I probably need several activities at the same time.” Another sentence she didn’t really need to say. Because anyone who has listened to Aimée Zermatten up to now knows that this woman has many talents. The talent for being monotonous is definitely not one of them.
From Sion to Federal Berne
Aimée Zermatten (born 1986) was born and raised in Sion. She studied law at the Universities of Fribourg and Vienna. From 2008 to 2016, she worked in correctional practice in Fribourg. Since 2016, she has been working as a lawyer at the Federal Office of Justice. As a sideline, she does research on criminal law and has just submitted her dissertation on the criminal-law treatment of sex offenders. Aimée Zermatten is a member of the Swiss Young Academy and active in various associations.
House of Academies