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.

Guest Blog: Zhengzheng Chen, 2nd year PhD student

Zhengzheng Chen is currently 2nd year PhD student in the Interface Geochemistry research group at GFZ Potsdam. She joined us in November 2020 as a Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) PhD scholar and will be with us until 2024. Her PhD project focuses on the interaction between iron minerals and organic carbon in Arctic peat soils. 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 Zhengzheng Chen.

It’s been a year and a half since I started my PhD, and I can still remember the nervousness and excitement I felt before I was accepted. At that time, I had only heard that it was a great group. Yiping (a former CSC visiting PhD student in the group) told me that Liane and Jeff had published many really good papers and that and that it would be good to get training from them. Meanwhile, Hongyan said they were very nice, but I had no idea about “very nice”.

I started my PhD at the serious point of the pandemic and was completely clueless about a completely new field; but Liane and Jeff (my PhD supervisors) didn’t take it for granted that I knew a lot. With a “you’re doing a PhD because you don’t know” attitude, they encouraged me to say “I don’t know”, which was considered a shameful thing in my upbringing. There are many things that need to be repeated over and over again to be mastered, but I used to think that I should have grasped and applied it well after being taught once. Here just learning a little bit of something new is rewarding and it’s a great feeling!

Looking back on the year, I seem to have learnt a lot of concepts and methods, but I still can’t be sure to explain the principles and why and how. It makes me feel like what I’ve learnt is a moon in the water, a flower in the mirror. It’s a bit like taking a theorem to solve a math problem, but don’t know how to prove the theorem. Over the past year or so, I have often been shocked by these differences in education and have thought about it.Jeff is one of the most amazing people I have met. He was so patient in the beginning and spent a lot of time with me doing some very simple experiments to help me get started. He can find the paper by just googling the author and title when talking about a particular problem (God knows how much I would love to have that ability!); and he remembered details of my experiments, Ruth and many PhD students in the group (I sometimes can’t even remember). He’s also exceptionally productive, and from the little that I know, he works not only on his own experiments, but also with PhD students, discussing and collaborating with many people, organizing seminars, reviewing manuscripts, applying for projects and funding, and he still has free time to relax! (OMG, it’s so hard for me to write a paragraph for my paper.) Looking at my slow progress, I really wonder if I will be at Jeff’s level by the time I get my PhD. There is a saying that “Blue from indigo plant is deeper than its origin” (meaning that the student surpasses the master), and It’s all very well if I could become light blue.

I sometimes feel that my research is a bit of a pick-me-up, but Jeff and Liane can spot something new in seemingly the same results. Liane and Jeff, who are both confident and passionate about their research, talk about it as if they were showing the whole universe or the history of human development, like a big, big, fascinating story, whereas I can only talk about it in a few dry and boring words. I thought it was a language problem at first, but then same thing when I told my friends in Chinese… I wonder if I will be able to tell a more interesting story as my research progresses. I also feel I need to look back at the development of this research, and there is a widely circulated picture of “what is a PhD” which probably illustrates that what a PhD does is to push a circle outward at the size of a pinpoint, so to make a pinpoint, understanding the background to the subject is also necessary, but it’s such a long and huge thing.

I really feel lucky that I chose to go abroad for my PhD and to be in this group. Whenever I mention to my Chinese friends at the GFZ that my supervisors are Liane and Jeff, they are super jealous of me (which shows that my supervisors are really well known). Before I didn’t know that PhD students were trained in this way, and that supervisors didn’t just care about your data/article progress, but also how much you have mastered/how to write a review/how to make a presentation and poster/how to enrich your CV/how to apply for funding. To put it more figuratively, the training system in China was probably factory style, whereas now it’s home-based and requires the passing on of skills.

Actually, it’s not just the skills, but also the thinking. I once read a Chinese blog about Liane by a young lecture who graduated from Freie Universität Berlin ten years ago. He described Liane with great admiration, and as there was no overlap in their fields of expertise, I guessed that he might have been impressed by Liane’s personality in just one conversation. The other day, I read a report that said “setting a role model for young female scientists at the start of their careers and female students aspiring to a career in science”. Liane DID just that! Liane and Jeff are what academics are supposed to be in their youth and peak years, and I am fortunate to be able to work with them, which gives me a vague ambition that if I ever become a teacher, I can pass on my knowledge and skills just like them!

New paper in Scientific Reports!

My GFZ collaborator Laura V. Krone just published her first paper from her PhD as part of the EarthShape project. From the drilling campaign in the semi-arid study site in Santa Gracia in Chile, we found multiple weathering fronts at various depths, even reaching as deep as 76 m from the surface. The denudation rate from this site result in a slow turnover time of the entire weathering zone (~7 million years). Despite this, we show that deep weathering is still possible.

(a) Schematic core log. (b) Acoustic televiewer image of the unrolled borehole wall. (c) Core photos of (1) soil and saprolite, (2) saprolite, (3) transition zone between saprolite and saprock; (4–7) saprock, (6) fresh bedrock. Figure from Krone et al. (2021), Scientific Reports, 11, 13057.

Please read the full paper here:

EXAFS beamtime at Diamond Light Source

Some “free” time while resting from sample pellet preparation in the glovebox.

Last February 2020, I went to Diamond Light Source in UK together with Liane, Dominique and Thaïs to do Fe and As K-edge EXAFS measurements at the I-20 beamline. We were mainly looking at redox-active Fe-bearing minerals and their interactions with arsenic, phosphate and silica.

Synchrotron beamtime is always an exciting time for me because I get to shoot high energy X-rays to my (synthetic) Fe-bearing minerals. Plus, it allows me to understand the crystal structure of these minerals, and the nature of the nutrients (e.g., Si, P) and contaminants (e.g., As) immobilized on them.

The beamtime was a success, and now it’s time to analyze all those EXAFS data!