Guest Blog: Ruth Esther Delina, 2nd PhD student

Ruth Esther Delina is currently 2nd year PhD student in the Interface Geochemistry research group at GFZ Potsdam since October 2020. She is funded by her personal DAAD PhD scholarship until 2024. For her PhD project, she investigates chromium sequestration and release in mining-impacted iron-rich tropical soils and sediments. Check out her profile here: GFZ Profile | ResearchGate.

Contents of this blog are unaltered and posted as is to preserve the voice and own ideas of Ruth.

It’s been 6 years since I graduated from my bachelors. Out of my answers to “what’s next?” never did pursuing a PhD pop in my head. But here I am now, more than a year and a half into the program!

I started my PhD in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. There were no vaccines yet, lockdowns here and there, there was limited access to the labs, and it was difficult to travel and meet people. It was a huge challenge to live abroad and start a PhD in uncertain times. Thankfully, I became part of an amazing, diverse (culturally and scientifically) but close-knit research group. We would meet for coffee/tea, play boardgames, and cook together…but on Zoom. While it could have been much better done in person, I really enjoyed these activities, helping me survive through my first few months as a PhD student. What helped me the most was having supportive and encouraging mentors. Liane and Jeff provided guidance and direction while fostering a positive learning attitude – “it’s okay to not know”, “there are no stupid questions”, “that’s science, try again”, “you’re doing a great job”, “you deserve a break” they say. Doing a PhD is definitely not an easy task but having such supervisors make it easier.

Online baking activity with my lab mates. I made banana bread and it tastes good! 😀
Beamtime with my supervisors, Liane (leftmost) and Jeff ( lower middle) and my PhD batchmate, Zhengzheng.

Reflecting on the past 1.5+ years, PhD has taught me lessons not only valuable for my scientific career but also for my personal development. Let me share the top 3 things I learned (and still learning) while doing my PhD.

Failures are just as important as successes. For my first project, I had to synthesize a lot of mineral standards. Not all minerals have standard synthesis protocols, so I had to try out different experiments. Some worked and some didn’t. For one mineral, it took me 4 attempts to produce a pure sample. Each experiment took 30 days, and this affected my project’s progress. I applied for workshops, grants, beamtime access and received “thank you for applying” as much as “congratulations”. Yes, rejections, failures and setbacks hurt and most of the time we look at them in a negative light, but I realized how they shaped me to become more knowledgeable, patient, and resilient. With the failures I experienced, I gained a deeper understanding of a mineral system (which could turn into another project), I learned how to better write a proposal and how to accept things when they don’t go my way, among many others. So, I am trying to celebrate my failures as much as my victories. I draw inspiration from a quote by Michael Jordan “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Next, progress is not linear. Reading research articles painted a picture of a linear research process. I tried to achieve this by meticulously planning the whole course of my first project – from when I will start my experiments to when I should start writing. I thought to myself, “this month, I should have progressed and be done by this experiment or this part of my draft”. However, my experiments didn’t always work, covid cases rose again so access to the laboratories were limited, I had to learn a software and got stuck, I needed to do additional experiments… Progress is not always about moving forward. The challenge is to embrace the uncontrollable, the ups and downs and the twist and turns. Step-back, evaluate, zoom out and look at the bigger picture. “Don’t let a bad day distract you from all the progress you made”.

Lastly, I learned that rest has to be intentional. Before my PhD, I worked as a university instructor while doing my masters. I was passionate in everything I did but I didn’t know my boundaries and had no work-life balance. Because of this I gradually developed chronic gastritis which is triggered by stress. I tend to repeat the same mistake while doing my PhD but now I have my stomach to remind me to pause and take a break. I am also blessed to be in a group where work-life balance is encouraged and appreciated. As a PhD student, it’s easy to fall into the trap of busyness but I learned that working longer or harder does not always equate to efficiency. Rest is important for progress. Resting well not only improved my well-being but also increased my productivity and motivation.

Rest, for me, could take on many different forms. It could be a walk in a forest (left), knitting (middle), relaxing by a lake (right), lying on the couch and watching a tv series, talking on the phone with my loved ones, a picnic outside with friends, or taking a vacation and spending time with my family.

My PhD experience has definitely made me a better scientist and brought out a better version of myself. Now, I am halfway through my PhD and thank God, I survived. There is still a long road ahead of me. Or should I say rollercoaster? But I will embrace the uncertainty and enjoy the ride.